Friday, June 28, 2013

Library Love Affair

Growing up, I didn't go to the public library very often. This is because we were more of an own-the-books-you-read kind of family, not so much a take-a-trip-down-to-the-pathetic-little-small-town-library-to-browse-through-their-sad-selection-then-read-the-germy-books-handled-by-hundreds-of-other-people kind of family. This arrangement worked out just fine for me, considering the thousands of books my family owned. Also, I always received a stack of books so high for my birthday I could barely get through them before getting another stack for Christmas. I was never without a book to read.

However, after growing up, moving on to bigger towns with better library systems, and living in a state of student near-poverty, I've gained a new appreciation for public libraries. Appreciation might be the wrong word. More like passionate love affair.

Our local library branch we left behind in Chicago. Isn't is so classically adorable? I will miss this little library, and our weekly walks there.

It's not just the books, although I must say, free books (any book and every book, if you wait long enough on the hold list) is a huge part of why I love libraries, obviously. These days, though, there's all those other fancy services they offer, like downloadable music, movies, audio books and e-books. Our last library offered free museum passes available for checkout (super awesome in Chicago). Of course there were old standbys like story time and toddler activities, free lectures and book signings by authors, and classes and seminars. And by and large, all this stuff is free. I mean, it's pretty much the most amazing concept ever actualized.

And now this is starting to sound like some sappy public service announcement. Or children's public television programming. You know, "Having fun isn't hard when you have a library card!" (Anybody recognize that one?) That wasn't my intention. I'm just super nerdy and really love libraries. That's all.

So thank you, Benjamin Franklin, for making my life so much better.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My Problem With YA Lit

I have such a love/hate relationship with YA literature.

I love classic YA lit. I love the To Kill a Mockingbirds and the A Tree Grows in Brooklyns. I love the dystopias and the coming-of-ages and the fantasies. But I love them for a reason, and that reason is usually a beautiful nugget of human wisdom wrapped in a sweet and simple story. These classic YA novels are the reason I keep coming back to the genre, reading all the new YA books I hear about, hoping to find that next great YA classic with that new beautiful nugget of universal truth.

The problem is that many of the popular YA books receiving so much attention these days don't have enough substance to launch them into the realm of classics.* I've read a lot of really good stories with a lot of creative twists. I've read a lot of steamy teen romances (a lot of triangles, not sure why there are so many love triangles, but whatever). I've read a lot of fun books, and I've liked many of them. But there's just not a lot more to them than that. They are just fun or creative stories with nothing beneath the surface. No nuggets of human wisdom. No deeper universal truth. They won't last.

Take Of Poseidon by Anna Banks, a book I listened to recently courtesy of Sync. I'd heard some good things about this book, but in the end, it wasn't much more than a "Little Mermaid" story flipped around (merman prince falls for landed girl). It was a fun story for sure, with a suitably steamy romance. But there was nothing else there, really. And I found it disappointing.

But a part of me wonders if I should be so judgmental. After all, I am not the target audience of YA literature. If young adults like these kinds of stories, should I come along with my snooty English-teacher nose-in-the-air and declare them NOT WORTHY because they will never be considered a classic? I mean, sometimes kids just want a story. They just want to be entertained in fresh and creative ways. And I can understand that. As a humanities person, I know the value of story for story's sake. The human brain loves stories, whether their be some deep moral message or not. Should I ask YA literature to be "deeper" than it is just because I am an adult who enjoys deeper stories? Or should I just let YA lit be for young adults, let them have their fun little stories that at least get them reading with no judgment on my part?

I'm still struggling with this. I'm still trying to decide what makes "good" YA literature. What I do know is that I love this genre, and I will keep reading it in search of that next "classic" book.

*John Green being a notable exception here, but I've got other issues with Green's book, which maybe I'll talk about when/if I review one of his books here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Not A Book Review

For anyone who's been following the few short weeks of this blog, you may have noticed (unlikely) that I'm trying to establish a pattern of posting a book review every Monday, with other posts on whatever other bookish topics throughout the rest of the week. I usually read a book a week (a goal that is at once both an aspiration to reach for and a rule to limit indulgences), so a book review a week seemed like a healthy pattern for posting.

This Monday, I've got nothing for you. Life and whatever.

Last week involved my husband graduating from law school, packing up our apartment and moving to my in-laws house eight hours away, celebrating our fifth anniversary, and helping my 18 month old weather the challenges of having his life turned upside down. Needless to say, it was a busy, emotional week. And while some reading did happen (lots of time in the car with audio books), I didn't finish any of them. I considered reaching back and reviewing something from before I started the blog, but I'm just tired. So, you get this gem of a post instead.

Have no fear, I'll be back later this week with more riveting ramblings like this. Maybe I'll get a book review up for Wednesday. Just mix things up a bit like that, keep it fresh.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

(Longest title ever, but don't let it scare you, the book is too good).

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb…. As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Oh my, what a delightful little read this was! I mean, who doesn't love a good epistolary novel? Honestly, I kept thinking the whole time while reading this that letters really are a lost art form. Wouldn't it be such fun to get letters like this from other people? Then I started thinking that maybe I should write letters to my friends. You know, the ones who wouldn't think it was weird, but would totally get it and respond in kind. I fancy I have a few friends who would write me back. Maybe.

But I digress.

Frankly, this little book was so much fun. I can't say it's huge on plot. It's a little wandering, lots of little side anecdotes, and I was really confused about the who the love interest was supposed to be until the last quarter of the book. But other than that I just loved it.

First, the characters. Juliet was, of course, my favorite, mostly because she's the type of person I think I'd like to be if I were actually brave enough to be a professional writer and throw tea pots at disrespectful reporters and go off to live on romantic little islands in the middle of the English Channel. Juliet was so clever and funny, yet thoughtful and considerate and smart and deep. Even if I'm not her (far too sensible, and introverted), I would love to be her friend. Or pen pal at the very least. Such hilarious letters!

But the rest of the characters were just as magnificent. Quirky, eccentric, adorable, fantastic cast of minor characters here. I loved the voice of every single one of them, although there were quite a few to keep straight. Still, I don't think I've read such fun caricatures since Dickens (maybe these types of characters must be British?)

Second, this book was hilarious. Maybe this is not everyone's kind of humor, but really, British humor is the best. So witty and clever and dry. More, please.

Finally, I enjoyed the historical aspect of this immensely. I had no idea that some British islands were occupied by the Germans during WWII. I'm not sure how many of the anecdotes in this book were taken from fact and how many were purely fictitious, but the story of the German occupation was fascinating. I didn't know this was a WWII novel when I picked it up, but I'm glad I didn't because I probably would've been a lot more wary of it. I tend to think that WWII historical fiction is a dead horse that's been beaten one too many times. But have no fear, this is not a typical WWII book. What I mean is, the war is over. This is much more a story of people trying to piece their lives together after the war, come to terms with what they experienced, and that is such a unique angle that I hardly even though of this as WWII historical fiction. There were some poignant moments, but not heavy. It was very well balanced.

Hm, I think I've rambled enough here, but I highly recommend this book to all. It is simply delightful.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bottles and Books

Excuse the poor quality grainy photo. Our camera doesn't take very good indoor pictures, and I took this one inside the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. They've got some profound stuff on those walls.

I like books for many reasons, but when I want to wax really philosophical on you to explain the value of books, I'm going to start referencing Sterling W. Sill (fantastic name, no?). Particularly, this talk that Elder Sill gave at Brigham Young University in May of 1977. I heard a recording of this talk last year, and I listen to it again every few months because it's just so powerful.

You should probably just stop reading this post and go read (or listen) to the talk right now, but if you need me to sell it to you, let me give a brief summary. Elder Sill begins by explaining how the French government commissioned one of it's scientists in the early 19th century to come up with a way to preserve fruits and vegetables so they could be enjoyed in off seasons or even in times of famine. Thus, a method of using bottles and sealing them with heat was invented so things like peaches could be enjoyed throughout the winter months. Elder Sill says that books are the bottles of ideas, preserving the thoughts of all the great men in history so they might be enjoyed by future generations.

...While I would like all of you to have that year's supply of food that you put into bottles to protect you against the famine for bread and the thirst for water, I would also like to have you insure yourselves against mental want, emotional poverty, and moral hard times with that lifetime mental and cultural supply that has already been put into books to protect you against that more serious famine for hearing the word of the Lord, of success, of culture and faith and happiness.

 I seriously believe that what we read influences how we think, how we think influences how we act, and how we act defines who we are. As Elder Sill puts it, what a thrill to know that the greatest thoughts that have been written by the greatest men in history can run through my little mind and become my thoughts just by reading them. Yes, what a miracle that is.

Monuments fall, civilizations perish, but books continue. The perusal of a great book is, as it were, an interview with the noblest men of past ages who have written it.

Doesn't that make you want to go read Emerson and Shakespeare? Or whoever you consider to be a great thinker? Will you go read this talk already? (Actually, listen to it. He sounds like such a gem of a person.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Books in Boxes

We are moving one week from today. It's a complicated cross country move that involves putting all our stuff in storage for the summer while we travel, then meeting up with it (hopefully in tact) in our new location at the end of August. Currently, our life is full of boxes, boxes, and more boxes, ugly bare walls, a cleaning list a mile long, and frustration.

I've made several moves in my life, and the saddest part for me is always boxing up my books. My husband always delicately hints that maybe we could throw some of the books out, but he knows he's treading on dangerous ground with that suggestion. I'm generally gung-ho about minimizing our stuff, de-cluttering, and cleaning out. Nothing makes me happier than seeing the overflowing trash bags going out the door after a good cleanse. But when it comes to my books, I am a hoarder. I don't care if they are cheap paperbacks with broken spines and yellowing pages. I don't care if I've already read them. I don't care if I will probably never read them again. They are my books, my own, my precious. I'm a bit obsessive about them. Nothing makes me happier than to see all my books arranged in neat and gleaming rows, properly displayed on a sturdy bookshelf. It is the one true joy of material possession (that and a cute pair of shoes).

So yes, I always get a little sad about boxing up my books, especially as it will be a few months before I see them again. I know it's irrational, but I get separation anxiety.

The current state of my bookshelves.

What makes it even worse is knowing about the two boxes of books in the nursery closet that never got unpacked from our move here three years ago. Plus the box of books sitting in my parent's storage shed, and the other box of books I lent to my sister a while back, which ended up moving with her to Oregon. They feel like little children that I have lost and scattered about, and there is the constant fret about when and how I will get them all back together again.

Books were not meant to be in boxes, and I will not be satisfied until I get them out.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.

Oh, what is there to say about this book? I wanted to like it so much more than I did. It was beautifully written, the characters were fantastically developed, and who doesn't love a good tragedy?

When the tragedy is self-inflicted, however, I seem to have a hard time really liking it.

Kitty was my problem, really. I will hand it to Maugham, he did a stellar job describing Kitty and really developing her in powerful ways, but it doesn't change the fact that if I knew Kitty in real life, I would've despised her. She was so shallow and silly, and so stupid. And even after going through her whole growing experience with the cholera epidemic, she was still unable to be strong enough to resist Charlie Townsend at the end. During her whole "pity me" speech to her father in the last scene, I just wanted to shout at her, "You brought this on yourself! You made the choice to marry a man you didn't love, you made the choice to have an affair! You made all these bad choices, don't be surprised that your life is miserable!"

Walter, on the other hand, I couldn't make up my mind about. I really quite liked him at first, even though I could not understand why such an intelligent man would ever fall in love with Kitty. Maybe I'm not much of a romantic, but I kind of think you do have some choice over who you fall madly in love with, and Walter should've known from the beginning it was just never going to work with this silly little girl. But I did find his disgust with himself for loving her to be quite tragic. Still, I wish he would've been strong enough to just forgive Kitty and move on, instead of gambling her life and his (a gamble he lost) in the cholera epidemic just because he was angry and brokenhearted. Maybe I don't understand broken hearts? I was just so baffled by the illogical way these people handled their lives, and it frustrated me.

So what I'm saying is that this is a beautifully written book about deeply flawed people who make terrible decisions and ruin their lives. Some people may find this kind of tragedy edifying, but I think you're safe if you skip it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Audio Books vs. Real Books

I used to be a firmly hard-copy-in-my-hands kind of book reader. I'm kind of a visual learner, so I remember words so much better if I actually see them on a page. Plus, I just like the physicality of actually holding a book in my hand, smelling the ink and glue, bending the spine, dog-earing pages, underlining or writing notes, that kind of thing. I like being able to skim through the boring parts, or slow down and re-read a favorite passage. I like making up my own voices for characters and my own pronunciations for funny names. I love experiencing a book this way, with no outside influences.

With an audio book, you are at the mercy of the narrator. If the recording is twenty hours long, then you must sit through all twenty hours to finish the book, no speed reading or skipping ahead. If the narrator gives a certain accent to a certain character, well, then, that becomes the voice of the character. Which is fine if you have a good narrator (oh, how I love Jim Dale), but if you have a bad narrator, it can just ruin a book.

So yeah, I used to be firmly against audio books.

But...

I've been slowly changing my mind. Recently, I've really become aware of the benefits of audio books, which include:

-Hands Free Reading. I can cook, I can clean, I can play with my kid on the floor, all while "reading" a book. Seriously, the multi-tasking enabled by audio books is a beautiful thing for a stay-at-home-mom (of course, most of the time I just sit and listen while browsing Pinterest, but we don't need to bring that up, now do we?).
-Ease of Access. No more trekking out into the cold or wind or rain to check a book out from the library. Or waiting several days for it to arrive from Amazon. Nope. With just a click of the mouse those little audio files are delivered straight to my laptop, and I'm listening in minutes. Oh technology, what would I do without you?
-Road Trips. Ever since that awful, horrible, no-good, very bad first trimester of pregnancy, I cannot bring myself to read in a moving vehicle. Even checking my email on my phone while sitting in a moving car can bring on waves of nausea. But, with our upcoming cross-country move and other summer road-trips (we just got back from a two-day road trip yesterday), there is simply too much travel time not to make literary use of. Audio books are invaluable on the road now. Luckily my husband and I generally share the same taste in books, so we can listen together.

Essentially, I'm a convert. Bring on the audio books.

What camp are you in?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review: The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): After years of watching her students struggling with their choices, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., realized that much of what people believe about willpower is actually sabotaging their success. Committed to sharing what the scientific community already knew about self-control, McGonigal created a course called "The Science of Willpower" for Stanford University's Continuing Studies Program. The course was an instant hit and spawned the hugely successful Psychology Today blog with the same name. Informed by the latest research and combining cutting-edge insights from psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine, McGonigal's book explains exactly what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters. 

Sometimes self-help books aren't actually that helpful. And sometimes scientific non-fiction is more interesting than it is practical. This book, however, is a good combination of both interesting and incredibly practical.

McGonigal (who teaches at Standford University, and I can't tell you how tempted I am to move to California to enroll in one of her courses just so I can call her Professor McGonigal) is a specialist in the science of self-control. She spends a lot of time explaining the neuroscience behind our decision making process, and how a lot of what we believe about self-control and willpower is actually not true. Honestly, I found this stuff fascinating.

In each chapter, McGonigal focuses on one aspect of self-control, explains the studies and research behind what is going on in the brain, and offers strategies for increasing self-control. I loved this organization of the book, especially the helpful chapter summaries at the end that succinctly state each strategy discussed. She instructs the reader to pick a willpower challenge at the beginning of the book, and then to try each of the strategies respectively to see what is most effective. And some of these strategies for gaining self-control are not as intuitive as you would think.

My willpower challenge while reading this book was finding the self-control to effectively study for the GRE (since I'm working on my grad school application right now). Being a full-time stay-at-home-mom meant that I had to carve my study time out during naptime or after my son went to bed, but often it was far more tempting for me to take a nap myself. Or watch TV. Or read for pleasure. Or do any of those million and one things that you can't do when you have a toddler demanding your attention. And studying for the GRE wasn't the most fun option for my break time (even if it was potentially the most rewarding). Here are a few of the suggested strategies that I found particularly effective:

-Meditation. Yes, even just five minutes of meditation a day can increase your willpower. This has something to do with increasing the flow of oxygen to your prefontal cortex, or whatever, but I was surprised at how well this one actually works for me. Days with meditation were noticeably better than days without it.
-Meet Your Future Self. This one is about being self-reflective about your future, and trying to keep future benefits weighed in the balance of present rewards. So I would tell myself things like, "Yes, my present self really, really, really wants to take a nap. But my future self will really love me if I study and do well enough on the GRE to get a scholarship. The rewards of a scholarship beat the fleeting pleasure of a nap."
-Catch Self-Control. This strategy is about the influence people around you can have to strengthen or weaken your willpower. McGonigal suggests thinking about or surrounding yourself with people who exercise self-control themselves. I had a built-in role model with my husband, who has not only been an example of extraordinary self-discipline when it comes to his legal studies over the past three years (I can't tell you how many hours he put in studying for the LSAT, and how much it paid off), but he was also my biggest champion (and lecturer) when it came to encouraging my GRE studying.

Those are just a few of the many strategies that worked for my specific goal, but McGonigal discusses many more, and I really think this is the kind of book I need to reread every year (maybe around the New Year, with all those resolutions...) to keep it fresh. In general, most of the strategies are about simply becoming a more self-reflective person, being conscious about the decisions you make, and knowing yourself well enough to know what tempts you or what triggers a certain behavior. Gaining willpower is really about gaining self-knowledge, and I thought that was a really powerful idea.

One interesting observation I had about some of these suggestions for increasing willpower is how, even though McGonigal kept everything strictly scientific with solid research to back her up, many of these suggestions are preached from religious pulpits. There was a whole chapter about the need to forgive ourselves when we mess up, because being harder on ourselves actually increases the chance we will fail again. The whole idea of "meet your future self" and delaying gratification can be re-construed in the general religious practice of avoiding temptation here in hopes of a better reward in the after-life. Meditation is a concept brought to us by ancient religions (and one that heavily parallels prayer). McGonigal never discusses religious parallels (although she uses terminology like "sin" and "temptation" all the time), but I drew my own and find it interesting that religious practice might generally increase a person's willpower.

Anyway, this review has already gotten far too long, but I hope you can tell how much I enjoyed this book. Not only was it well-written and well-organized (with some humor to boot), I'm just so pleased at how useful it was in my real life. Because I took the GRE just a few weeks ago, and while I won't reveal my scores here, I will say I did better than I expected.

Thanks for that, Professor McGonigal.

Recommend this one to anyone who wants to develop more self-control (and really, shouldn't that be everyone?).