Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Make Your Bed

My husband was raised in an environment where productivity was God and personal worth and value derived from what you accomplished. In the end, the stress and pressure of that mentality was quite crippling for him. When I married, I had no idea that I would be evaluated from such a standard. Held up in that light, I'm fairly worthless. After all, my primary occupation right now (since my little ones are more independent and no longer little) involves sitting at a desk, writing and revising and scouring books and websites on marketing. When nothing tangible comes of that, I'm viewed as lazy and unproductive. It is hard not to let those assessments alter my own view and self-esteem. There are days when I question my worth and value because my pursuits provide negligible profits for our family. Despite aspirations of accomplishment, my hands come up empty.

Yet, there is a simple act that can set each day in motion toward greater productivity ... making one's bed. As the subtitle of this book proclaims: "Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World." In Make Your Bed, Admiral William H. McRaven outlines ten simple principles to live by, the first being a simple chore as mundane as straightening the sheets, aligning the comforter, and placing the pillows in order. Admiral McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL who gave the commencement speech to graduates in 2014 at the University of Texas. He outlined ten basic life lessons he gleaned from his time in training. Despite their simplicity, they have the potential to ripple out into significant life-changing ramifications.

As he mentioned in the beginning of his actual speech, the actions of one individual can alter the outcome for a whole host of people. After mentioning several key moments, he argues, "not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children's children were saved. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person." Never underestimate the value of your life and the simple things you can do to begin to change the world.

His prescription sounds almost too easy. Begin the day with a simple task completed, so that it will kick off a chain of events, making you more productive. Acknowledge ahead of time that things will not always be fair, life will sometimes be dark, bullies will beat you down, and hope will seem distant. Determine to learn from your failures, take risks, look difficulty in the eye and provide hope to others. Such basic determinations can reap astounding results. Like Churchill's famous admonition, McRaven encourages his audience to "never give up."

I made my bed today. I plan to continue to plow away at my writing dreams. Despite failure and seeming futility, I will press on. I need not question my worth and value. Hopefully, someone will one day benefit from the neatly tucked sheets and the words I set down, because every life holds the promise of making things better. Who knows, even little things can change the world!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: Underground Fugue

A member of my book club recommended this title because it was written by a friend of hers. Underground Fugue really got me thinking about how writing books can be akin to writing music. Divided into seven chapters, the story sings out from multiple voices shedding light on relationships, identity, and loss. The author, Margot Singer, skillfully weaves the perspectives of her tale like passages of music in a fugue, quite an artistic endeavor.

Moreover, I loved how the title played out in the story on so many levels. "Underground" can refer to several ideas: 1) beneath the surface of the earth; 2) secret or hidden; and 3) a subway system. It also comes through in the myriad of emotions plunged beneath the surface by individuals unwilling to face them head on. In the same way, fugue can mean "a musical form or composition designed for a definite number of instruments or voices in which a subject is announced in one voice and then developed contrapuntally in strict order by each of the other voices" or it can follow the psychiatric meaning of "a state of psychological amnesia during which the subject seems to behave in a conscious and rational way, although upon return to normal consciousness he cannot remember the period of time nor what he did during it; temporary flight from reality." (Webster's)

Fleeing the tragic death of her young son and the concomitant dissolution of her marriage, Esther arrives in London to care for her dying mother. Unable to sleep on the first night, she takes to the porch for a smoke and is intrigued to notice a college-aged boy slipping into the neighbor's house in the middle of the night, covered in mud. She is immediately curious and suspicious, but doesn't let on when she first meets the boy's father, Javad, an Iranian neuroscientist. Javad seems to know as little about his son as Esther does. Javad and Esther's developing relationship is threatened when a terrorist attack occurs and the boy goes missing.

Woven among the stories of the main characters is a subtext of a factual story about a man who washed up on a beach in England in early 2005 wearing a suit and tie. This man, dubbed "The Piano Man," was an outstanding pianist, yet would not, or could not, say a word about his identity (see this NPR article). The inner workings of the brain have always fascinated me, so I was especially drawn to the neuroscientist character. Javad is called in to consult on the case of "The Piano Man." He cannot tell if the amnesia and aphasia (language impairment) are due to brain injury or voluntarily affected. The mystery surrounding this man serves as a counterpoint to the mystery festering among the main characters.

My heart also ached for Esther and the onslaught of loss she weathers. As she reflects on the structure of the fugue performed by a pianist in a recital, she observes, "Its variations make connections between seemingly unlike things and reveal the ways in which the new is recreated out of the material of the old. It shows us how the present is always in conversation with - in counterpoint with - the past." Thus, Esther deals with the reverberations of fallout from her own troubled past.

Truly, the writing sings. In a passage told from the perspective of Esther's dying mother, the author writes, "Time has a different rhythm now. Days and nights bleed together as she drifts in and out of sleep.... Time dilates and contracts. In the stillness of the afternoons, or late at night, the sound of the piano rises through the floorboards.... The notes like fractals, a filigree of counterpoint.... Music for the beginning and the end of time."

The author reveals, in the acknowledgments, the germ of her idea (that NPR piece on the "Piano Man") and the painstaking effort to create a worthy manuscript ("many drafts and many years"). I was blown away when she admitted to having discarded the project's earliest draft. I cannot even imagine! But, I am thrilled that she persisted because her work paid off to produce a beautiful, lyrical novel. A deep sense of grief stuck with me long after I put the book down. My mind continues to lick over ideas of identity and relational friction. Just as music evokes emotion, this melodious novel stirs the heart to feel and the mind to think.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

This novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, by Ramona Ausubel, is one I probably would not have chosen on my own. It was my book club's May selection. Although I didn't attend the group discussion (exhausted from our recent vacation to Cedar Point), I know that at least one other group member had a similar response to my own. I just didn't connect with the book on any level. I didn't care for the characters, feel drawn in by the plot, or relate to the theme. Indeed, I felt a bit annoyed with the characters as they responded in childish ways to their reversal of fortune.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is probably meant to be some sort of statement about privilege and class identification. The characters supposedly despise money, yet when it dries up, they are thrown into such a tailspin that the father, Edgar, pursues an adulterous relationship and heads off with his new lover for Bermuda, while the mother, Fern, embarks on a road trip with a stranger to find that man's son. Both assume that the other is home with the children. Alas, no one is caring for the children. Instead, nine-year-old Cricket attempts to pick up the slack, getting herself and her younger brothers off to school each day. Fearful of the orphanage, Cricket keeps their plight a secret and buoys the spirits of her brothers with tales of early American courage and stamina.

I was perplexed by much of the novel. As the family unravels in the face of their newfound poverty, the story weaves back and forth from past to present, providing commentary on individual roles in a family (Fern's twin brother, Ben, is fully fractured by the separation brought on by Fern's marriage and his military enlistment), the burden and weight of privilege, and the idea of one's place in history. Yet, as I said, I never really felt any affection for the characters or cared even slightly about their plight (they seemed self-absorbed, immature, and unstable). Even Cricket confused me. At one point in the novel, she goes off alone to the restroom and seems to be molested in some way (hard to tell what really occurred). On another occasion, while they are camping out in a teepee, they discover a dead fawn (abandoned, like them) and Cricket attempts to skin it (to mimic the self-sufficiency of American Indians??).

Edgar loses his glasses while on his jaunt with the other woman and his sightless state seems to finally bring him to his senses and call him home. Fern pursues her own infidelity in retaliation to Edgar's, and the guilt and remorse remind her of her lost perspective on the needs of her children (how do you lose sight of the needs of your children, seriously?). Moreover, Fern seems more concerned with helping her companion locate his lost son than she is with the fate of her own children. I just couldn't seem to get behind these characters or understand their motivations.

So, while the novel wasn't really difficult to read, I can't agree with any of the endorsements claiming it is a "gorgeous and moving must-read," and "a book brimming with life." It was fairly well-written, but simply not my cup of tea. I didn't come away with any meaningful new thought or perspective on life and am none-the-richer for having read it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Think Like a Five-Year-Old

I'm always struck by how easily I grow discouraged in my creative endeavors. Writing is a lonely occupation. Success in writing is often elusive. I too frequently find myself praying, "God, do you just want me to give up on my writing dreams, since they seem so unproductive?" It is in moments like these that I rely on books like Think Like a Five-Year-Old: Reclaim Your Wonder and Create Great Things. Thank goodness for writers like Len Wilson, who understand my dilemmas and speak encouragement to my doubt.

The focus of this book emphasizes the budding creativity found in young children. As I read the passage about the fourth-grade slump, and how creativity begins to taper off, my own fourth-grader was reading next to me and I had to share some of the insights. He agreed wholeheartedly with the theory and gave his own perspective on why kids begin to pull back, squelch their own ideas, and lose the freedom to express their creativity. It is, apparently, a universal trend and one every writer/artist, indeed, every individual should fight.

As Wilson observes in the preface, "We're made to be creative. When we, as an image of God, exercise our heavenly impulse, the result of our expression, regardless of our field of endeavor, is art.... The problem is that while we have this supernatural power, this creative wellspring, within us, we've lost it." Wilson prescribes a method for countering the lies we tell ourselves that steal our creativity out from under us. As he quotes Madeleine L'Engle, "God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling." He encourages creatives to approach our process with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:29-30) and he offers up stories of individuals who have done just that.

I loved how his insights always lead the creative individual back to the source of creativity, God. Wilson comments, "The counterintuitive trick is to surrender our passion, which come from God anyway, back to God and then wait." We cannot gaze at our navels and worry about the productivity of our endeavors. He goes on to say, "The paradox of creativity is that, to the Christ follower, personal fulfillment is a misnomer. A focus on fulfillment belies the truth that when we focus on ourselves, we'll never find ourselves. Our passions exist for a greater purpose than our own fulfillment."

For any reader who is stymied by discouragement or ennui in their creative ventures, Wilson will spur you on to reclaim the innocent wonder of childhood and pursue your talents and gifts without the baggage of lowered expectations, self-glory, or control. He provides an excellent source of renewed encouragement. He turns the focus on God's purposes and reminds the reader of who is truly in control. As my son informed me, "a fourth-grader begins to realize how stupid their enthusiasm has looked and they pull back in fear." Don't let that process rob you of your gifts! Respond with the enthusiasm of an uninhibited child and give your gift back to God to bless Him and others.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: Talking as Fast as I Can

Meeting the actor or actress behind a famous character can be a bit like pulling the curtain away from the glorious wizard in The Wizard of Oz. In other words, it can be a let-down when you discover the magic was created by someone altogether different from what you imagined. This was my experience encountering Mel Gibson. I loved him in such movies as Forever Young, The Man Without a Face (one of my all time favorites), Braveheart, The Patriot, and What Women Want. Then, I saw him on a talk show, shortly after Braveheart. In real life, he seemed crass, rude, and brash. All my happy images of the characters he portrayed beautifully suddenly shifted. Granted, I will still watch those movies and relish his performance, but my respect for the man behind the mask has been stripped away. He is only human, after all, not the wizard he pretends to be.

Thus, when I saw advertisements for Lauren Graham's memoir, Talking as Fast as I Can, I was hesitant to pick it up. What if she turned out to be crass, rude, and brash? What if, in attempting to be as humorous as her beloved character on The Gilmore Girls, she tried too hard and impressed too little.

I'm a big Gilmore Girls fan. In my previous life, back when I worked full time and had a young child who dictated the channel setting (oh, yeah, I still have that), I occasionally caught an episode here or there. I loved the characters, the witty banter, the clever come-backs, and the sweet relationship between Lorelai and Rory. It was only months ago, when I discovered all seven seasons of the show available on Netflix that I became literally obsessed. I loved that I could watch it in snatches on my phone in the quiet of my room after washing up the dinner dishes or while waiting to transport my middle-schooler home from his post-school work-out sessions.

It became a bit of a running gag in our house. Where's Mom? Oh, she's in her room watching yet another episode of The Gilmore Girls. When I realized that my boys didn't mind the interruption and actually relished watching with me (imagine, if you will, us belting along to the theme song - truly happened on more than one occasion), I began to watch some of the episodes on our television in the living room. It was a cozy something we shared (although I don't approve of everything on the show and thus had to provide them with some parental commentary).

Thankfully, meeting Lauren Graham through this memoir was painless and fun. It turned out, she is down-to-earth, real, and delightful. I liked her just as much as the character she portrayed. I breathed a sigh of relief because she wasn't crude and didn't try too hard to make a favorable impression. By listening to the audio version (read by Lauren), it did indeed feel like "catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories" - a back-cover teaser - but I put my name on the hold list for the hard cover book, nonetheless, because I missed out on the photos accompanying the text.

I also appreciated her humility. Instead of focusing on herself (a key player in the popularity of the show), she highlights the many quality actors and actresses who played their parts so skillfully that they seemed perfectly cast (here I think aloud of Rory, Lorelei's mother, Luke Danes, Michele, Suki, and the hilariously ubiquitous Kirk). Moreover, she recognizes the finesse of the writing team behind the dialogue that won the hearts of the American people. The witty banter I so love in the show lends the title to this book. The scripts apparently became longer and longer because Lorelei's character was so well-known for her quick responses and her fast talking.

As a writer, I was pleased to find advice on tackling daunting writing tasks (since Lauren wears the writer hat on occasion, as well). It reaffirmed my belief in the power of getting it down without worrying about the quality or quantity. She reiterates someone else's advice to set a timer for a do-able increment (say, an hour, or less if your schedule doesn't even allow for a solid hour) and refuse to give in to any other distraction. I loved the idea of pulling up two documents: your work-in-progress and a personal journal. How freeing it must be to know that when you set out to put in your allotted time, if the work-in-progress is stuck, you simply pass over to journaling. This sounds reminiscent to Ray Bradbury's advice to begin by randomly writing down a list of words. The very act of coming up with those words tends to trigger a path into reasonably productive territory. But then again, you're free of the worry associated with productivity at the outset. The key, as always, is to silence the inner editor, the task-master, and the naysayer, and simply focus on pushing out the words.

Pull me off to the side in a room full of people and I will happily talk your arm off about what I liked and didn't like about both The Gilmore Girls and the Netflix series of A Year in the Life of the Gilmore Girls. Dare I admit that I was so frustrated in my efforts to find another engaging series to watch on Netflix that I have begun season one all over again? My fascination is cemented. My relief is immense. I like Lauren Graham just as much after encountering her behind the screen as I did before she stepped out from behind the curtain. And if my book reviews taper off, you can bet I'm either hunkered down with another episode of The Gilmore Girls or I'm setting a timer for another hour of focused writing of my own.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Review: Hallelujah Anyway

I like Anne Lamott. I really do. Yet, once again, I felt less than satisfied with her newest book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. I think, in order to fully grasp mercy, one has to fully grasp mercy's need. To that end, Lamott spends quite a bit of time portraying the faults and failings of our humanity. Still, the true extent of our need for God's mercy is never tapped. In the end, the reader comes away with ruminations on personal need to show one's self and others mercy.

Just as in Help, Thanks, Wow, I bristled at the political infusion in categorical denunciations. And, once again, I found it hard to stomach the familiarity and crassness used in speaking of both Paul and Jesus. At one point, she declares (when Jesus wept for Mary and Martha's sorrow) that Jesus was "pissed" and she responds to this sentiment with her own declaration "Oy vey!" Hmm. Not my take on that whole scenario. She calls Paul "cranky, judgemental, and self-righteous," although does admit that she sees these very attributes within herself. For me, it feels like a lack of respect. I want to step back and recognize holy ground when I see it. I don't want to sully things beyond me with my own limited perspectives.

Moreover, I didn't really feel a strong sense of connection with what was being said. Many times in reading previous books by Lamott, I have felt moments of kinship. This time, I couldn't get inside her pain or her acts of mercy. I wanted to feel more deeply, to be convicted more intensely.

So, while there is some value in reading Lamott's observations - we all could certainly stand to treat one another with more mercy and forgiveness - I came away wishing for more depth, more respect, and more conviction. We need mercy from God far more than we need mercy from ourselves. We cannot hope to show mercy to others without recognizing the depth of our need for mercy from the One who atones for our death-infused sins.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Carrot Cake Murder

As I said in my review of the ninth installment of this series, I probably wouldn't continue with the books if I couldn't find them in audio form (I'm always requiring a book to listen to while I walk on the treadmill each morning). Indeed, I was rather disgruntled with this tenth book, Carrot Cake Murder. So many of my complaints played out in this episode.

For starters, the reader is dragged along with the numerous love interests of the main character, a woman who has admitted to herself that she can't hold a candle to the raving beauty of either of her sisters. Yet, somehow three men are willing to dangle on a thread in hopes that she will cast her lot in their direction. Really? Moreover, ten books and Hannah still hasn't made up her mind? Come on.

The formula is simply growing tiresome. Thankfully, we didn't have to hear too much about the cat in this book. Hannah's detective boyfriend allows her to sleuth away, sharing evidence. Yet another Lake Eden citizen has cooked up murder over a trivial reason. Hannah, of course, finds the dead body and dishes up recipe after recipe throughout the process of determining the killer.

Another pet peeve I have with this series is the author's insistence upon teaching the reader tid-bits of information. Often it comes in the form of grammar lessons, Regency dialect information, or detective procedure.  It's not that I don't enjoy learning something from what I read, but rather the grating tone the author uses while instructing on trivial bits of information. As another reader expressed in an Amazon review, why does the reader need to be informed what "slate blue" means?

Finally, I am weary of the main character's slow mental processes when it comes to technology. This is a woman who is supposedly smarter than the average detective, yet she stumbles through instructions on how to use a cell phone? Really? I'm not the brightest when it comes to these devices myself, but I find her cluelessness less than endearing.

So, why am I still listening? Good question. Is it that old conundrum of wanting to finish what I started? I do still enjoy hearing the recipes read off (and will probably attempt one or two of them someday). It is definitely easy listening because it is not hard to follow, even when my mind wanders during the walk. And finally, my library just doesn't have enough fairly clean audio books to keep me going (I have three on the back burner right now, but I'm wondering if I will be able to listen to them on weekends, when my boys are around). So, I plug on in this seemingly endless series where the formula never alters a bit: the main character drags several love interests along behind her while she stumbles upon countless dead bodies and outwits any other individuals attempting to solve the troublesome cases. Please tell me this author isn't as committed to her formula as R.L. Stine was (whose 62 book Goosebumps series is still read voraciously by young kids in schools across the country).

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: The Writing Life

I first encountered Annie Dillard in a course at Wheaton College. I remember marveling at the poetry of her wisdom in words. It is like she holds a reader's eye up to a microscope and describes every detail with such precision and eloquence that you sense the beauty in all the parts that make up the whole.

In The Writing Life, Dillard turns her lens from nature and onto the creative act of writing. I found so many gems of wisdom in this little volume. In explaining the writer's need to forcibly pursue the work, she writes: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." As to attitude toward your work, she says of the writer: "He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not."

Dillard's words reminded me of the importance of keeping up the momentum (something I only did once I discovered the Nanowrimo challenge). She says: "I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.... If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.... You must visit it every day and assert your mastery over it." Writing is sheer pursuit. "It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then - and only then - it is handed to you." She writes further: "It feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence."

And finally, of the responsibility to fill our hearts and minds with what is good for the soul and good for our writing, she says: "The writer ... is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know." Dillard's words are inspiring. I could turn to them again and again for motivation in my writing tasks.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: The Acid Watcher Diet

Sometimes, in the medical world, determining the cause of particular ailments leads to a wild goose chase. I have experienced this before, am experiencing it now, and will probably go down this road again in the future. While I don't want such experiences to color my view of physicians or infuse me with a general distrust, it seems inevitable. I grow weary of floundering around in the dark.

For the past seven months, I have been battling a chronic cough and a constant need to clear my throat. About a month ago, I was attempting to take a vitamin when the pill became lodged in my throat. As I reached up to feel if it was actually still lodged there, my husband noticed a distinct lump in my throat. Weary of my constant coughing and throat-clearing, and alarmed at what might be a growth of some sort, he insisted that I see my primary care physician (a task I vehemently avoid because of my general squeamishness in medical procedures and my flagging confidence in medical personnel).

And so, the run-around began. Blood tests revealed that my thyroid levels were within the normal range, but an ANA test came back positive. The doctor ordered a thyroid ultrasound to examine the lump, but that came back normal. Because of the ANA test, and noticing the pervasive redness of my cheeks (which the doctor considered might be the butterfly rash of lupus, rather than the hereditary rosacea I had always thought it to be), the doctor referred me to a rheumatologist. Thankfully, the rheumatologist, after posing diagnostic questions, doubted a lupus diagnosis and merely found a UTI.

Yet, the chronic cough continues and the doctor doesn't seem to pay it much mind beyond associating it with asthma. Then, I happened upon the questions on the back cover of this book, The Acid Watcher Diet. "Do you suffer from abdominal bloating?" Check. "a chronic, nagging cough?" Check. "postnasal drip?" Check. "a feeling of a lump in the back of your throat?" Check. My interest was peaked. My parents both suffer from acid reflux and I had noticed, recently, a few occasions of bile coming up when I was lying down (the most classic symptom).

In The Acid Watcher Diet: A 28-Day Reflux Prevention and Healing Program, Dr. Jonathan Aviv highlights the lesser-known symptoms of acid reflux and acid damage and brings awareness to dietary solutions for the problem. He identifies the links between inflammation, weight gain (another troubling problem for me), and acid reflux. I never before really thought about the acidity of so many of the processed foods we are tempted to eat. It was eye-opening to learn the pH factor in different foods.

The book is broken down into three parts: A Diagnostic Tool for Assessing Acid Damage (including what you should know when you see your doctor); Food and Lifestyle Prescriptions (including the importance of fiber and an especially helpful chapter titled "Breaking Acid-Generating Habits and Establishing Acid-Reduction Practices"); and a 28-Day Healing Phase meal plan, Follow-up Maintenance Plan, and coordinating recipes. In the first section, I became convinced that my problems might be associated with some acid damage to my system from eating foods with high acidity. The second section reinforced some information I had already read about the microbiome, importance of fiber, etc. And, the final section, made me question whether I have what it takes to attempt this 28-day cleanse.

The most difficult challenges for me would be giving up coffee and chocolate, increasing my intake of raw vegetables (not my favorite way to eat them, but prescribed at a 1/2 cooked, 1/2 raw ratio), and consistently eating my evening meal a full three hours before heading to bed (since I'm an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person, this would mean eating before 5:30 and my husband tends to schedule our evening meal more toward 6 or 7). Still, I am intrigued and fairly eager to attempt this diet to see if it will eliminate the chronic cough, especially so when I read about the undetected acid damage leading to esophageal cancer. Many of the recipes (including easy-to-prepare smoothies, omelets, and fish/chicken dishes) sounded like something I could manage, and that's saying something since I'm fairly hopeless in the kitchen. The photo of elimination diet foods is appealing (from the Acid Watcher Diet website).

I'm all for using food as medicine. While I'm not ready to commit to the diet yet, I will certainly keep it on my radar and will probably check out the book again when I am more in a position to attempt it. I definitely plan on copying the list of safe foods. Even if I never implement the diet fully, I think that I gained quite a bit of knowledge about ways to be on the alert for acid damage and that could go a long way. The key is awareness or as the book likes to type it AWareness (emphasizing the acid-watching factor).