Friday, December 19, 2014

The Wise Heart

The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield (2008)

While visiting my aunt in the fall, we were talking about books, as we do, and she highly recommended this book about Buddhist psychology. I was skeptical - I am probably the least spiritual person on earth - but I do trust my aunt, who tends to like books that I like, and I'm always open to hearing good advice. I needn't have worried about the more spiritual aspects; the author won me over early with his explanation that Buddhism isn't really a religion because Buddha was actually a person (not a deity) and it's more about a way to look at the world. Furthermore, his intention is to present Buddhism in a way that makes sense in our lives, since we don't all live in forest monasteries and spend all day meditating.

I've taken this book very slowly, spending almost three months reading it. It isn't the sort of thing you ingest in one sitting. It's not a story, though it contains a lot of them. There are a lot of ideas to think about and suggestions for practice; things to do to integrate Buddhist teachings into your life.

The basic principles are pretty easy to understand, like mindfulness and compassion for all things. Recognizing that our moods are impermanent is another idea that we would all do well to remember. Letting go of the ideas of who we are makes sense when explained in context. Someone who strongly identifies, for instance, as a manager is going to be in trouble when they go home at night still clinging to the manager role. Family members will probably not appreciate that. Similarly, someone who identifies only as a parent will have a tough time if they bring that identity to work. We are less restrained if we don't cling to these identities so strongly. Much of what I read, especially early on, reminded me of some of the more work-related self-help things I've read, such as Emotional Intelligence.

Kornfield lost me a bit later on though, with the Buddhist personality types, which I just found way too simplified (there are only 3 types.) Even later, he gets downright mystical and describes the expanded consciousness that can be achieved with the help or peyote or LSD (which he characterized as misunderstood.) There is nothing here I want to apply to my life, though I did find it entertaining. It all reminded me a little of The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castenada, which I read in high school. (For a class, yes. Crazy.) But this was all in one or two chapters. Most of The Wise Heart was more useful for gaining a healthy perspective on our lives and problems.

I must admit that I kept having visions of Lisa Simpson while reading this because, previously, most of my knowledge of Buddhism came from the Simpsons. I think of Lisa as sort of a kindred spirit and I kept hearing her voice in my head reading the principles of Buddhism. It was very familiar and comforting.

I bought this copy and it is thoroughly dog-eared and marked up because I found lots of good advice in it, most of which is pretty sensible. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a fresh outlook, or a more healthy perspective. It's not for everyone, but probably a surprising number of people would find it helpful if they gave it a chance.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (2014)

Twin siblings Noah and Jude are very close when they are 13. Jude is outgoing and popular and rather a daredevil, while Noah is more on the edge of the social scene, quietly falling for the boy next door. Both are talented artists and their mother is encouraging them to apply to an arts high school. Three years later they are barely speaking, Jude having retreated into herself, ruled by superstition, while Noah is now the "normal"one who plays sports and has lots of friends. And something has happened between each part of the story that changed both of their lives irrevocably. Each twin tells their half of the story until the full arc is revealed and they can find their way back to each other.

Everything about this book is wonderful and magical and you should immediately procure a copy and read it all in one sitting. The end.

Ok, if you want, here are a few more details. The story is about family and secrets and art and romance. There are actually a few romances in here and they are all great stories. You should know that this book contains the most amazing kissing scene ever.

The way it was structured is actually quite brilliant. Noah tells his side of the part of the story that took place a few years ago, and Jude tells her side of the current story. So, they each have half of the story, (and we too only have part of the story, though different parts) and to get it all, they basically need to get back together. I'm not explaining that well at all, but trust me when I say it works.

This is going to sound a little weird coming from me, who is incredibly rational, but I liked all the superstitions that Jude was obsessed with from her grandmother's book of wisdom. Jude lived by these rules. Like "To avoid serious illness, keep an onion in your pocket." And "If a boy gives a girl an orange, her love for him will multiply." There's also a lot of destiny and fate and other things I don't believe in, and yet it all worked really, really well for me in this novel. I can't explain it. (Though, as I said before, this book is magical.)

There's also a talking parrot who only knows how to say "Where the hell is Ralph?" and a reclusive artist who makes giant stone sculptures of people, and death-defying leaps from ocean cliffs, and an adorable British alcoholic.

Have I mentioned the tragedy? There is a very huge, heartbreaking tragedy at the center of this novel and its incredible sadness somehow makes the happy parts all the happier. You will feel all of the feelings.

I literally can't think of anything negative about this book, which makes it hard to review but easy to recommend. (I've already got one library patron excited to read it!) Those who like authors such as John Green and Rainbow Rowell will probably also love I'll Give You the Sun. I think the best review of this book was also the first one I saw, when another librarian said that the cover was an accurate representation of how she felt the whole time she was reading it. I couldn't agree more.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2014), narrated by the author

I'm always drawn to strong, successful women and even more so if they are funny. Although I'm not a big tv watcher, I really enjoyed Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live and in the movie Baby Mama. Given how much I enjoyed Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was really looking forward to her good friend Amy's book. Spanning her life so far from childhood through the formation of the Upright Citizens Brigade and her time on SNL and Parks and Recreation, Poehler also included stories from her personal life, including marriage, divorce, and motherhood.

It was not off to a promising start. The first two short chapters of reflection about writing the book and how hard it was and how she came up with the title felt long and rambling. Not long after was an entire chapter about how she once made a joke on SNL at the expense of a little girl with cerebral palsy, received a chastising letter about it, and then proceeded to ignore it for several years until finally she apologized. She includes all the correspondence including a letter from the girl in question. My impression was that she spent a lot of time convincing herself that she should feel guilty, until she finally did, and the whole thing ended up feeling very preachy.

I think what annoyed me the most was that when she describes the incident she explains what it went down the way it did, and then apologizes for making excuses. No, you are aren't making excuses, you're telling us why someone who wouldn't intentionally make fun of a disabled girl did exactly that. How has analyzing something to find out why it happened and how you feel about it turned into "making an excuse"? It all just rubbed me the wrong way, like she was just trying really hard to be politically correct. She spent way too much time talking about it, and now I have, too.

But the book gets better as Poehler talks more about her childhood in Burlington, MA, her waitressing jobs, and her comedy career. She's only a couple of years older than I am, so I fondly remembered along with her the time when everyone seemed obsessed with scoliosis and we didn't have answering machines. Yes, those were the days. I even liked hearing about Parks and Recreation even though I've never watched it. She really does have some good stories.

When sharing the early years of her career, she says something that I've already quoted her on in conversation, which is this:

"I think we should stop asking people in their 20s what they want to do and start asking them what they don't want to do. Instead of asking students to declare their major we should ask students to list what they will do anything to avoid. It just makes a lot more sense."

Right? It makes total sense. But what we do is say, hey, the whole world is open to you! Which is the one thing out of the thousands of possibilities that you want to do? How is anyone supposed to answer that question?

On the other hand, she also says something I found surprising coming from her. Curiously, she says "I firmly believe that every boy needs his mom to love him and every girl needs her dad to pay attention to her." All I could think was, I guess love is too much for a girl to hope for from her opposite-gendered parent. She didn't explain this comment either, so I was left perplexed and a bit miffed.

All in all, I'd say it was a mixed bag, though despite how complainy this all sounds, it was more good than bad. It's just that the things I disliked are pretty specific and memorable. More generally, it wasn't as funny as I expected, but I mostly enjoyed listening to it. The print version contains some pretty amusing photos, which are worth looking at, but even so I think I'd recommend the audio. For one thing, she reads the book herself and unsurprisingly does a good job at it. But she also has some guest narrators, like Seth Meyers, Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart and her parents. There's a little bit of banter that I imagine isn't in the print book, and it was quite entertaining.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Knitting

Back in early 2009 I received a very pretty set of crocheted dish cloths from my friend, which I posted about here. Here they are again, in case you don't want to click through:

It's just about 6 years later and these guys have seen a lot of dishes. They're all starting to get holes in them so I know it's just a matter of time before I need to replace them.

I happen to have a decent amount of cotton yarn hanging about so I decided to knit a simple dishcloth, which I did a couple of months ago. Then I totally stalled before managing to do the crochet border. So a week or so ago I thought, you know what? It's about time I learned to actually crochet. None of this half-assed business of barely managing to do a shitty-looking border on a knitted thing, I'm going to learn to crochet an actual thing.

I finished the border and then made a single-crochet swatch for practice that happens to be the right size for a dish cloth. Here they are together:

Ok, so I inadvertently decreased a few rows into the yellow crocheted one, but I'm pretty sure it will still wash dishes adequately. My plan was to whip up a few so I'd have a whole bunch to show you. But strangely, just as knitted things won't knit themselves, it seems that crocheted things won't crochet themselves either. One of these days I'm hoping to find some simple-but-varied patterns and make some more.

Then I plan to get really good at it, maybe as good as my coworker who whips up all kinds of fun and fantastical things in no time at all and who, one of these days, I fully expect will crochet a working TARDIS on her lunch break. I suppose it's unlikely I will ever approach her talent, but I hope to at least be able to make an afghan or some amigurumi animals.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty (2014)

Caitlin Doughty was long fascinated by death, so it was no surprise when she took a job at a crematory in her 20s. Armed with a degree in medieval history, she found that the job market wasn't exactly flooded with opportunity. Given her lifelong interest in all aspects of mortality she was soon drawn to the funeral industry. While working for Westwind Cremation and Burial she not only learned a great deal about the industry, but she also further solidified her views on how our society and the funeral industry treat death. Since that time she has founded The Order of the Good Death and hosted a web series called "Ask the Mortician."

Let me just say at the outset that if you feel uncomfortable with frank, graphic descriptions of corpses of all ages and the things we put them through, this book is not for you. Several people in my family work in geriatric care, hospitals, or the funeral industry, so I'm used to hear about all manner of disgusting things over Thanksgiving dinner. And I've always been a bit morbid, from my early obsessions with Sylvia Plath and Stephen King to my recent and long-awaited visit to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Your mileage may vary.

For those of us who are interested in the macabre, this book is completely fascinating. It's not often you get insight into an industry as tightly-shrouded as this one, and I was very interested in hearing about all the daily aspects of Doughty's job. She doesn't just discuss her crematory work, however, but also delves into all aspects of the death industry and even brings in practices from history and other cultures to lend perspective to our own way of handling the dead and the dying. She raises issues ranging from the spiritual to the environmental, and her consideration of these topics made me think a lot about my own views on death.

Our separation from the harsh realities of death do us few favors when faced with destruction like Hurricane Katrina. The many bodies clearly visible in the aftermath seemed all the more horrific because we have no idea what death actually looks like. A lot goes into making a dead person look presentable, and in making sure we don't see them until they are ready to be viewed. Since most people die in hospitals these days we see few of the gory parts involved in death, as they are left to the responsibility of nurses and other hospital staff. Doughty describes how swiftly bodies are removed from the sight of onlookers after death, a far cry from the days in plague-era Europe when then were just piled everywhere. Not that I'm nostalgic for the smell and decomposition so commonly experienced in our past, but it is pretty strange that we seem to want transparency in every other arena but are happy keeping the details of death behind closed doors.

In fact, Doughty mentions some instances in which grieving families felt better knowing more details about what happened to the remains of their loved ones. In one case, a woman she met outside of work had lost her husband, and when Doughty explains what happens when a person is cremated, the woman said she felt a lot better knowing the details. If people feel better knowing more, then why is the funeral industry all about smoke and mirrors? I'm sure that are people who are happy to have it that way, but clearly that's not everybody.

Not since watching Six Feet Under have I had such an immersive education about death, but of course Smoke Gets In Your Eyes has the advantage of being non-fiction. I found it all completely fascinating and well-written, and further I appreciate that Doughty is unapologetic about her interests, which I'm sure some people find morbid and horrifying. But she embraces death in a way that is really healthy and even admirable. It's a little surprising how much she fit into just 241 pages because I feel like I learned a great deal, and I'm inspired to read more on the subject. Not only does Smoke Gets In Your Eyes feel like a much bigger book, it's also feels like an important book. If you're interested in facing mortality, you can't go wrong by picking up a copy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010)

I last read this novel in 2011, and it was the first book I read by either of these authors. I have since read all of John Green's books and although I've only read one other by David Levithan I do plan to read more. You can see my previous post for a summary and my initial thoughts.

Reading it this time, I remembered very little about the book, like the fact that even though there are two Will Graysons, the whole thing is much more about Tiny Cooper. I did remember how much I love Tiny Cooper. He feels all of the feelings, which kind of makes up for some of the other characters who have trouble expressing themselves or choose not to. He's also more sure of himself than anyone else, and is there for the newly-met Will Grayson when he most needs someone, and does a great job of making him feel better. (I will heretofore refer to that Will as lowercase Will and the other as capital Will.)

This time around, one aspect of the story that really stood out to me was lowercase Will's depression. When Tiny first comes over for a visit, he sees Will's prescription meds. When Will explains that they are for depression, Tiny mentions that he too sometimes feels depressed. Will is inwardly very annoyed because, of course, feeling depressed sometimes is not the same as clinical depression. He also dislikes when people say they have to take a "mental health day" when they have no idea what it's actually like to have a mental illness. How awesome if it could be alleviated just by taking one day off. While lowercase Will's depression isn't the focus of the book, it was a pretty large part of his character and I guess I just noticed it more this time around. I've read other books recently in which mental illness plays a role and I've sort of begun looking for it in YA books. I actually liked that his part of the story wasn't focused on dealing with his depression; that was something already established that was just going on in the background like it actually does in so many real lives.

Similarly, although two of the main characters are gay, this isn't a coming out story either. For lowercase Will, it's true that he comes out to a lot of people around him, but he already knew he was gay and was fine with it, it's just that for quite a while he didn't think it was anyone else's business. Tiny has been out and proud for a long time and although it's a big part of who he is as a person, the story isn't really about that.

Primarily, it's a story about friendship, and about the many ways that people are terrible friends to each other. Remember high school? The lies and betrayals and drama? They are all here. Everybody is the star of his or her own life in the most exaggerated way possible because everything is such a big deal and they are all rather self-centered. Tiny gets so wrapped up in his romances and his musical that he'll ignore capital Will's calls. And capital Will is so intent on shutting up and not caring that he is also not a great friend to Tiny. The worst is the toxic friendship between lowercase Will and Maura, but although she is terrible to him it's really out of a desperate need for his friendship. It's all wonderfully complex and entertaining.

I've wanted my Not-So-Young Adult book group to pick this book for ages and finally, finally they did. Thankfully, they all liked it too. It's maybe not the very best book for discussion, as it doesn't have the heavy-hitting and complicated issues that some of our book choices do and which can spur debate and extensive conversation, but I think sometimes it's ok to just pick a fun book. Anyhow, we did find a decent amount of things to talk about, and I loved it just as much as I did the first time, so it was a success all around.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's list is easy because I read a number of authors for the first time who I really liked a lot. Links go to my posts about their books.

1. Andrew Smith is easily number on my list. I read three of his books this year and really liked them all.
2. Holly Black. I loved The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and I should really probably read something else of hers. Any suggestions?
3. Hugh Howey. I really don't know if I'll read more in the Silo series, because can they possibly be nearly as good as Wool?
4. Cammie McGovern. I love finding new great YA authors!
5. Jessie Burton. The Miniaturist was her debut, and I will be keeping an eye out for more from her.
6. Kate Manning. My Notorious Life featured one of my very favorite protagonists of the year.
7. Caitlin Moran is funny and clever and brilliant.
8. Karen Joy Fowler managed to pack a pretty big story into a rather little book, which is something I always appreciate.
9. Dan Chaon wrote some really great short stories and I've heard positive reviews of his other books also.
10. Nick Lake wrote one of the most amazing and unusual YA books I read this year.

What about you? Did you discover any great new authors this year?