On I’ll Give You the Sun

Image retrieved from goodreads.com

I’ve had trouble getting into most young adult fiction that I’ve crossed paths with lately. Certainly you have to bring some laxity to the reading of any novel geared to a teenage audience, but despite my cautious, lowered expectations, it wasn’t until I landed upon Jandy Nelson’s brilliant second novel I’ll Give You the Sun that I finally found some young adult fiction I could truly sink my teeth into and devour.

Nelson’s novel centers around twins Jude and Noah, told from their alternating perspectives. Part of the appeal was in the three year time gap between points of view; Noah’s story is delivered from the vantage of their 13 year old selves, while Jude’s perspective is offered three years later when they reach age 16. Nelson devoted great attention to each story line before her transitions so readers get to intimately know Noah, then delve deeply into Jude’s world, rather than having the more constant, banter-like back-and-forth. Nelson’s plot twists and turns were very carefully revealed; one twin’s knowledge was withheld from readers (and the other twin) far longer than a more traditional novel would allow. Like Jude and Noah themselves, we readers were trying to piece together two sides of the larger story at a tantalizingly slow pace.

The basic gist is that Jude and Noah are wildly different but deeply connected twins at the tender age of 13. Living on the Northern California coast, Jude fits in with the middle and high school crowds, an adventurous surfer girl who isn’t afraid to keep up with the guys but is right at home surrounded by a gaggle of girls. Noah is more of an outsider, an extremely talented and artistic kid whose main focus is attending a prestigious arts high school and hiding the fact that he has discovered his own homosexuality. Once we hear Jude’s side of things from the vantage of 16, however, we find that the twins’ identities have been practically swapped and their connection all but severed by endless hurt, misunderstanding, and jealousy. Jude gets into art school and  secludes herself from her old crowd and the rest of the world, while Noah attends the local public school and hides his true sexual orientation in an effort to secure his fragile social status. The two are practically estranged by this point but Nelson wisely only doles out the slightest clues as to why at her own pace, keeping us readers completely hooked.

The cause of the rift and resulting personality switch is a family tragedy, the details of which I’ll let Jandy reveal to you herself in her poetic, imaginative, engrossing work of literary art. There’s little more that I want to say plot-wise because the characters are so vividly, realistically, and complexly written into the story; it would be a disservice of me to spoil your pleasure of discovering them and their contributions to this fictional world on your own. I’ll Give You the Sun is just so damn beautiful that I don’t think any review could adequately encapsulate how powerfully Nelson’s gift for literature comes across in her work.

Themes of art, family, loss, identity, and misunderstanding are tenderly woven into the twins’ story as they struggle with their relationship, the power of creativity in their lives, and the common realities of coming of age. Certainly the book rings a bit formulaic, but I had no trouble forgiving Nelson this fault, given the target audience and the otherwise overwhelming profundity of this book. Similarly I could see some of the twists coming from a mile away, but that’s what watching too many R-rated movies and reading too many family dramas will do to a person; I’m more jaded than the average teen. I think I’ll Give You the Sun would be truly a delight for young adults, if not a gentle introduction to some more adult topics, in it’s mixture of innocence, tragedy, and misunderstanding.

Reading should take you to another world, one that is heartbreaking and compelling and imaginative and breathtaking. A gifted novelist can challenge you, engage with you, and move you for years with a single piece of fiction. It should never feel like a chore to read, but more like a gift, a pleasurable state of being that you want to revisit over and over. Every unopened book holds this potential to me, but I always find myself truly surprised and deeply grateful when I actually complete a book the delivers. I finished I’ll Give You the Sun with the much sought after but rarely experienced desire to flip back to page one and immediately read it all over again. Instead I chose the alternative – sharing it with the world and/or my mother because stories like this are far too special to be kept to oneself.

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On #CrimingWhileWhite

I’ve grown weary hearing of the Michael Browns, Tamir Rices, and Eric Garners of the world. I’m thankful that this dialogue surrounding racially-charged police brutality has finally grown so loud it cannot be ignored. I’m disappointed in and embarrassed by this country that still remains unable to sort out something so simple as racial equality. I’m saddened by the loss of so many young men who were deeply loved by their friends and families and communities. I’m sorry that their lives were defined by these tragedies, rather than the untold promises their futures held. I’m furious that these injustices continue to be the norm. I’m tired of hearing story after story, week after week, indicating that each horrible instance has not brought the necessary awareness and caution but instead has paved the way for more violence and death. I’m worried that similar news stories will continue to break such that we become numbed into indifference.

I’m also filled with confusion about where the solution lies. We need to change the national narrative about race, to challenge the stereotypes that lead some members of our country to see things that aren’t there, to treat others in ways they would never treat someone that looked more like themselves. I feel so impotent regarding what I, or anyone, can do.

And ultimately, I am still a white woman. A person who is less likely to be pulled over by virtue of the color of my skin. Someone a police officer is more inclined to let off for a minor transgression of the law, rather than allowing the interaction to escalate to dangerous, violent, even fatal levels. This brings with it a level of power and authority that a black person doesn’t have because my whiteness inherently and unfairly means my voice is more valued by society. But it also separates me from the reality of what is occurring because my skin color protects me from injustice. By virtue of my race, I cannot imagine living in fear of the consequences of others’ reactions to my own blackness.

I was intrigued by a story I read here about a new Twitter hashtag, #CrimingWhileWhite. These tweets offer examples of how our police force routinely lets white people off the hook for a variety of offenses in ways that black people never could. Maybe these are things that should be overlooked as travails of youthful stupidity or maybe they shouldn’t – that’s not what is at issue. We see again and again how race, not the offense, determines arrest rates. We see how white people are not targets, are not viewed as threatening or dangerous or in need of punishment, are not at such high risk of having their life derailed by the very police force that is here to protect them.

I love that this is raising a discussion among white people. As white people take that first step of recognizing their own privilege, I hope to hear more from those whose voices are, for better or worse, the loudest in our society. I think Chris Rock was really onto something when he talked about the misguided dialogue on racial progress: having a black president doesn’t signify black progress because African Americans have long been qualified for the presidency. It’s a sign of white progress that white Americans have finally recognized and affirmed this. His example demonstrates how the responsibility to improve racial equality lies not with black people, but with whites.

What we can and should do still avails me. Though talking alone will not solve these problems, there is nothing else that seems right to me, no other place to start. I’m at a loss as to which words, if any, are the ones that will change the thoughts and actions of others for the better. But it is only by testing them out that we can determine which words are the magic ones.

So talk about race, violence, police brutality, inequality, blackness, whiteness, peace, segregation with friends, with family, with neighbors, with co-workers, with community members. Engage in conversation through public dialogue, long-distance phone conversations, small talk among strangers, call-in radio shows, outraged social media outlets, peaceful protest. Recognize that this isn’t a problem with a simple solution. It will require a sea change in how we view a whole sector of our population. It is only through talking, sharing experiences and reflections and opinions and ideas, that we can approach a new dialogue, one that views people of all races as deserving of protection, equal justice, and a chance at living.

On My Hiatus

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything in this space. This is partially due to the fact that a job I once loved slowly devolved into one I despised, leaving me sapped of all physical and mental energy at the end of each eight hour work day. I simply didn’t have the desire or the wherewithal to write about any of the myriad topics life was otherwise offering up to me. The Orioles were also in the playoff run this past fall, so a considerable amount of my non-work time was consumed with all things baseball.

But I also began to think about the real reason why I even had a blog. I worried that my posts were motivated by a self-conscious desire to present myself in a certain way to the wider world. I don’t believe that efforts to publicly define one’s identity are inherently bad, but this blog felt more and more like a superficial, composite means of doing so. The web is ripe with beautifully designed, thoughtfully written, carefully planned blogs – I felt like I was modeling the look and sound of my own space after these pristine paradigms and devaluing my own work, however authentic it was, for not being up to par. Before even embarking on writing a post, I considered what others would think of the topic, my thoughts on the issue, my writing ability. Surely I don’t need to write about every guilty pleasure in order to be an authentic writer (who has ovaries and doesn’t partake in the occasional perfectly constructed pop song by Taylor Swift?), but when you hold yourself back from putting your thoughts out there for fear of others’ judgment, something is undeniably off. I don’t know exactly how many people have ever read this thing, but I know it isn’t many. That just made the whole effort feel vain and pointless whenever I considered posting again.

I hadn’t even thought about Remember When the Music for a couple of months until today when I heard Letitia Vansant broadcast on the Live Lunch segment at local radio station WTMD. I remembered Letitia reaching out to me via email after I posted about her music some time ago. The fact that my words initiated that communication felt deeply important and meaningful to me at the time, and it still does today. A modest number of other people, whether readers or sometimes the subject of posts themselves, have similarly contacted me via this blog, and each correspondence is unique and significant and part of what I faintly hoped becoming a blogger would entail. Though I appreciated Letitia’s thoughts and we shared a few emails, I feel like I allowed my anxiety to cut short what could have become an even more thorough dialogue. As I was thinking about what this blog has done and could do for me, I decided that maybe I should start writing again. Maybe it could open up whole new worlds, opportunities that I denied myself in the past. Maybe it could be a great exercise in being myself, reigning in my self-consciousness to honestly and openly put to paper my thoughts and feelings on things that move me.

While I was walking dogs today (my new and much more satisfying day job), thoughts of writing swirling around my head, I thought about LiveJournal. I remember this being a popular blogging platform back in the day, although I never partook and can’t even say if I ever visited the site. But the name rings true to what I want to do now. I’ve never been a journaler because it’s exceedingly difficult to motivate myself to write knowing that no one else will ever see the finished product. But I’m hoping to start blogging somewhat more regularly (being a student certainly doesn’t help with the whole time to write thing, despite the drastic decrease in job stress) and with an appropriate level of self-consciousness. It’s good to write with an audience in mind – it keeps you in line and holds you more accountable to what you say. And a journal is more akin to what I hope this blog will be, something personal and genuine and hopefully interesting.

It seems self important to write a post about my own “hiatus,” but I couldn’t really think of how else to frame these thoughts. I don’t know who reads this and I don’t particularly care how many people it reaches. I just hope that maybe it can foster a few more of those connections it has yielded before, those types of interactions that make you feel like what you are writing is meaningful and contributory and real. And along the way I certainly won’t complain if it also becomes a personal project in shedding self-consciousness, anxiety, and too much worry.

On Why We Broke Up

Image retrieved from gmfunkbook.blogspot.com

Although I consider young adult fiction to be a guilty pleasure of mine, sometimes I don’t feel quite so guilty about it. Despite the fact that Daniel Handler’s YA novel Why We Broke Up feels even more juvenile than most picks from the young adult genre because it is a picture book (artist Maira Kalman’s work is included at the beginning of each chapter), the art is actually a quirky and creative means to tell the story of why protagonist Min (short for Minerva) broke up with Ed Slaterton. I certainly anticipated feelings of guilt before I started reading this one, but once I picked it up those feelings evaporated rather quickly. This was an incredibly enjoyable read and one I wouldn’t feel an ounce of shame to recommend to me friends (which is why I’m writing this review, I guess).

So the plot: en route to her now-ex’s house, Min composes a letter detailing the reasons why she and Ed broke up as she goes through a box of all her Ed-paraphernalia. Each item within the box (illustrated in the book by Kalman) is afforded its own chapter in which Minerva elaborates upon the circumstances surrounding the physical object that reminds her of Ed and how it made her fall for Ed or foretold their coming break up. In so doing Minerva shares with readers the story of how she came to fall for Ed in the first place. It’s a deceptively sweet young love story told within the confines of an unapologetic break up novel, the classic tale of two young people from different worlds falling in ill-fated love.

Minerva, an unabashed cinema nerd, continually cringes as Ed’s friends try to describe her – she always dreads being labeled “arty” but what she is more commonly classified as, “different,” isn’t much better given its vagueness and potential for profoundly negative connotations. Ed is co-caption of the basketball team, a charismatic high school senior that seems to have dated pretty much every girl in school with even the slightest ounce of popularity to her name. Min and Ed meet one another at a party, a chance encounter for two high schoolers from completely different social circles – after a disappointing basketball loss, Ed and company crash one of Min’s friend’s parties. Minerva’s friends are a delightful bunch, fiercely loyal to both one another and their respective ideas of themselves as independent and authentic. They spend time at coffee shops and see black and white movies at the art house movie theater, they explore the most interesting haunts of their neighborhood and have ironic Bitter Sixteen birthday parties. They aren’t the most developed teenage characters in the world of fiction, but they are appealing in their earnest attempts at being themselves and their ability to plainly recognize the superfluousness of popularity, athleticism, and high school drama. Ed’s friends fall on the other extreme, a group of far more one-dimensional characters who spend their time at bonfires dominated by gossip, kegs, and an endless game of musical girlfriends among the basketball players.

But then Min catches Ed’s eye and introduces him to her world. There is something rather endearing about the trope of the artistic love interest opening up new doors for the more conventional one and Handler carries it out rather sweetly.

Of course, conflict arises. Ed was conditioned to behave towards women in a certain way that is far from conducive to Min’s expectations of coupledom. Min tries to ignore Ed’s complete lack of taste, not to mention his lack of genuine interest in her friends. Their circles are so far removed that social events require careful and elaborate planning so as to evenly split time with both groups. Ed’s ex-girlfriends are constantly around, constantly contributing to Min’s sense of self doubt. Min learns her lesson that you can’t choose a boy over your true friends.

Handler also gives readers a fair share of what we always seek in romance novels, whether written about the young or the old – a glimpse into the remarkable and unrepeatable world two people create together. Even though we know all along, thanks to the author’s wise choice of title, that this relationship will end with a split, that doesn’t negate the moments of tenderness, humor, and adventure that Min and Ed share. On their first date, Min takes Ed to see a movie and, upon leaving the theater, surmises that an elderly lady also exiting the theater is in fact the aging star of the film they just watched. The ensuing narrative of Min and Ed following the supposed actress around town and to her home highlights the way that Min brings out a certain side of Ed many don’t see, not even Ed himself. It’s a side that is game for adventure, that seeks something in life other than the unquestioned norm, but he painfully needs some guidance in how to access that part of himself to begin with. Each item in Min’s box is a testament to this world that no longer exists by novel’s end, the small touchstones that indicate the type of people Min and Ed were in the short time they spent together.

Handler expertly characterizes a modern day Romeo and Juliet, a pair that obviously don’t belong together but are still drawn to one another in ways that are at once plainly clear and deeply complicated. Why We Broke Up is easy to mock (I’ve seen my fair share of negative reviews whose titles are hackneyed puns along the lines of “Why I Broke Up With This Book”), but I appreciate Handler’s bold (and I would argue successful) attempt at navigating the seas of teenage love and heartbreak in a fresh way. And if it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to tell anyone that pictures accompany the story though in retrospect, I ultimately found them to be just another sweet touch.

On Ingrid Michaelson

Now I know this album is long past relevant for most, but to me Ingrid Michaelson’s 2007 release Boys and Girls still stirs that undefinable something inside which music is supposed to unsettle. Maybe it’s just that I was going through a way pivotal time in my life when I first listened to the album on a daily loop, or maybe it’s something more implicit to Michaelson’s unapologetic honesty and her songwriting ability. I’m hoping it’s the later so that this post isn’t entirely in vain.

Michaelson’s songs on her second release distill the complexity of heartbreak into such effortlessly poignant music that I almost feel inspired to try my own hand at songwriting whenever I listen to them. She makes it seem so easy to turn stories of love and love lost into a resonant and coherent album. Although her songs make reference to the specifics of Michaelson’s own relationships and heartbreaks, from too-small hand-knitted hats to jokes about Rogaine, implicit in each and every quirky lyric is the understanding that anyone who has ever been in a relationship shares certain universal emotions and experiences. Her songwriting is thoughtful but playful, demonstrating a witty intelligence that is never self conscious or takes itself too seriously.

Though “Breakable” isn’t the most remarkable cut from this album, I still can’t quite get over the verse “Have you ever thought about what protects our hearts?/Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts/So it’s fairly simple to cut right through the mess/And to stop the muscle that makes us confess.” I think this lyric sets the tone for the entire album, offering a theme of sorts about the delicacy of our hearts and the myriad ways in which they can be broken and repaired.

“The Hat” is Ingrid’s reflection on first love, her own being a winter romance that she struggles to remember in its ending. She captures all the bitter-sweetness of a first love, of feeling impossibly special and carefree when you initially find yourself in love with someone, of the tenderness and wonder you will always hold for that person tinged with the sadness that he or she will likely just remain a memory: “I have come to learn I’ll only see you interrupting my dreams at night/And that’s alright.” It’s a song about coming to terms with the fact that first loves do end. But Michaelson recognizes the vital importance of letting someone know just how much they figured into your life story, even if they have long fallen out of the plotline. I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate that type of feeling than “fondness” and Ingrid gets it just right.

And then there’s “Glass” which reflects on a different type of lost love, one shaded by regret and hurt. I doubt there are many song lyrics more gut-wrenching and on the mark than “I am blind/I can not find the heart I gave to you.” The austerity and simplicity of these lines (obviously a skill with words that I have yet to master) contains a whole host of emotions that are impossible to ignore when you lose yourself so completely in another person that you can’t even figure out who you are. It’s a very cinematic song, the type I would envision as score in a movie during a scene when a woman leaves her lover and begins to gain strength in moving on.

By far my favorite track is “Starting Now,” a break up song about committing to a new start even when you still long for someone. Before the song crescendos to the point where Ingrid wishes she never even met her scorned lover, she sings about the lengths to which she would go to rid herself of the man that so badly damaged her life, ie wanting to “crawl back inside my mother’s womb” and “burn the sheets that smell life your skin.” Something about driving around and singing this song at the top of your lungs until your throat is so sore you can barely speak is really satisfying after your heart has been trampled on. Thanks for giving me those moments of rage and recovery, Ingrid!

Contrary to what I seem to be portraying, there are more than sad, angst-y break up songs to be found on Boys and Girls, but I think these songs shine a little bit more. That’s not surprising to me; I think happiness is much harder to capture in a moving way and much harder to be moved by. We all want someone to share our sorrows and listening to Ingrid makes me feel like I’m hashing it out with a best girlfriend. I’ve laughed and cried and danced and sung along to all twelve tracks back in the day and still find myself moved to do the same when I listen now, even from a happier and more settled place in my romantic life. And while I recognize that certain pieces of art will feel particularly timeless to an individual person because of whatever they were going through in their life when said art was first encountered, I believe that Boys and Girls represents something a bit more widely universal.

On Mistaken for Strangers

I’ve long been a fan of The National, the indie rock band easily identifiable by lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep vocals and by their uniquely cinematic music, increasingly popping up in films as the perfect score for heightening already-emotional moments. Although my husband has long claimed that The National’s music bores him, I convinced him to watch a recently released documentary about the band. Within 80 minutes, he was completely converted.

But the documentary, which shares its name Mistaken for Strangers with one of the band’s songs, isn’t your typical music documentary film. The whole project starts when The National needs a hand on their European tour. Lead singer Matt calls on his younger brother Tom, a metalhead and amateur filmmaker, to assist the five man group as a roadie. Tom takes the opportunity to also film the outfit, interviewing the various members about their experiences as a touring band of rising fame and capturing their stirring live performances.

It doesn’t take long until Tom’s initial aim of capturing The National on film becomes completely derailed. The content of his movie becomes much more personal, focusing upon the relationship he and his brother share, even routing his interviews with the other band members to their thoughts on Matt more than their experiences as members of the group itself. Once Tom is (deservedly and predictably) fired from the tour, audiences are left wondering where he can possibly take his film project without access to his brother’s band. Is this movie just going to leave us despising Matt Berninger for being unforgiving and harsh to his hilarious, earnest brother, even if he is a bit of a screw up? Are the Berninger brothers going to be able to overcome the professional rift that ended both their relationship as band member/roadie and filmmaker/film subject? Luckily the answer to the former is no, and for the later it’s yes. The route that Matt and Tom take to get there, however, is engagingly captured and heartwrenchingly narrated for the remainder of the film in Tom’s very able hands. The movie ultimately is a fascinating investigation into family dynamics more than a profile of one of the world’s foremost indie rock groups.

I was frankly surprised to learn that Matt, nine years Tom’s senior, was the golden child, a star athlete and continually successful kid. In retrospect it makes sense as Berninger’s personality is revealed to us through the movie, but most people wouldn’t expect the creative force behind a band such as The National to have lead such an untroubled childhood. Tom, on the other hand, wasn’t such an easy kid to raise. His mother, interviewed in the film, laments how Tom was always quitting his endeavors, how he just couldn’t seem to get it together the way his older brother could. But she also admits that Tom was always the most talented one of her children. It’s readily apparent that Tom is an entertaining, inventive, and funny person to be around, but admittedly a bit immature. Some of my favorite bits in the movie are when he asks various members of the group to stage mock-serious shots, things as bizarre as wiping the steam from the cloudy post-shower bathroom mirror and state “The National belongs to everyone now.” I guess you kind of have to see it to get the humor, but Tom obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously and it comes across as a virtue. Though I would certainly have been annoyed as a member of the band by some of his antics, I found him to be a wildly entertaining narrator of and personality in the film. His interactions with the members of The National provide much of the levity needed in Mistaken for Strangers and also highlight the type of person Tom unabashedly is.

Tom completely proves his mom right regarding his talent – the proof is in Mistaken for Strangers itself, a story of two brothers sorting their relationship out that disguises itself as a music documentary. There were points where I had no idea how the film would conclude, how the Berninger boys would figure out their roles as brothers, one wildly successful as a rock star and the other struggling to find his footing. But Tom captures that journey and tops it off with a finale sequence that gave me chills, a cut of the movie perfectly paired with The National’s music which continually pleases by lending itself so beautifully to film.

The conclusion of Berninger’s movie was strongly reminiscent of the final scene in Warrior, a film about two brothers competing in a mixed martial arts tournament set to The National’s “About Today” track. I only caught the final five minutes of the movie when my husband was watching it, but it was patently obvious that a more ideal song could not have been blended with that movie’s tear-jerking conclusion. No more than a few days later, I had to go back and watch the whole thing. My husband invited me to watch it the first go-round, but I declined just on the basis of its plot line. Warrior was a movie I never would have sought on my own if not for serendipitously walking through the living room and seeing for myself how The National’s music was beautifully, heartbreakingly utilized in that final sequence.

So it seems that this film review, like the film Mistaken for Strangers itself, started as a rumination on one thing and ended with another as it’s central topic. Heed my advice and when you add Mistaken for Strangers to your must-watch list, put Warrior on that queue while you’re at it.

On The Geography of Bliss

Image retrieved from http://www.ericweinerbooks.com

Positive psychology, freedom, self-help books, wealth, the American Dream. Just a few of the topics we cannot ignore when discussing the American understanding of one thing we all strive for, happiness. The United States treats happiness as a goal but an elusive one at best, the kind of thing we’re constantly reaching for but never quite able to grasp. And we’ll take any shortcut or quick fix available to get there. But while nearly everyone else is doing their damndest to secure happiness  for themselves, a wise few are giving happiness a little more thought, treating it as a serious and important matter of contemplation. Though Eric Weiner’s tone in The Geography of Bliss isn’t so serious, his commitment to uncovering the universal foundations of happiness certainly is.

As a self-professed grump and NPR foreign correspondent, Weiner decides to remove himself from the negativity of his demeanor and the unhappiness inherent in the stories he covers by embarking on an international quest for answers to his questions about happiness. Why do all those self-help books not add up to that much-promised sense of satisfaction? What makes some groups of people more happy than others? What are the conditions for ultimate happiness maximization? Where do we need to travel to find happiness in its most highly realized form?

Traveling to ten different countries to mingle with the natives, Weiner blends armchair philosophy with academic research from the social sciences and periodic bursts of pure Weiner brilliance, moments of our author’s enlightenment that are at turns wryly humorous, profound, alarmingly true, and hesitantly optimistic. As much as Weiner stays tethered to his central happiness theme, the book also stands as a fascinating exploration of national personalities, of the cultures that shape the attitudes and outlooks of an entire people. What makes the people of Moldova rate themselves as such an unhappy group? How do Icelanders retain their positive outlook through the winter days of total darkness? Is it really possible for Indians to achieve happiness when they’re constantly confronted with poverty and pollution, right next to decadence and spirituality? And what in the world do the Bhutanese mean when they talk about their nation’s Gross National Happiness?

For a topic that at first glance seems so lighthearted, if not frivolous, happiness proves a challenging topic to consider in The Geography of Bliss. My poor library copy of Weiner’s book was fattened with earmarks by the time I was done with it, the tops and bottoms of countless pages with particularly thought-provoking passages folded down for revisiting later. This book gave me so much grist for the mill of my mind, I was thinking about happiness for days and days – which isn’t such a bad way to achieve a certain kind of happiness. I’ve come to believe that just spending so much time with happiness on the brain is plain good for you, an exercise in personal philosophy building.

My own personal belief has long been that happiness isn’t some state of being we achieve and rest in peacefully forever after. Happiness requires constant effort and the experience of it is far from static. Presence is huge to happiness for me; focusing on the current moment, rather than dwelling in either the past or the future will yield much greater levels of joy and contentment than the alternative. Having a loving circle of people in your life, an occupation that provides a sense of fulfillment, basic feelings of safety and comfort – these are all necessary ingredients. But I’m also a white woman born living in one of the most powerful nations in the world during the 21st century. My understanding and experience of happiness may well be vastly different from that of people on other sides of the world, with cultures that place value and organize themselves in wildly different ways. By exploring happiness in those nether regions, Weiner provided me with an unprecedented feast of food for thought when it comes to my approach happiness, allowing me to see outside the box of the American happiness construction.

I won’t spoil too many of Weiner’s discoveries for you because it is just such a pleasure to delve into this book. But a few things ring true after unearthing the secrets to both happiness and sorrow across the globe. The happiest places seem to inspire a sense of life being bigger than just our own self, confined to our own personal histories and achievements. Connection to some larger group or idea grounds individuals in happier states of mind. You don’t need to move or even travel to find happiness, but you need to allow yourself to be moved by the places you go and the things you experience. Happiness is accessible in the most common of our relationships, in pure and joyful moments, no matter how humbly we pass the time. The Geography of Bliss emphasized for me how simple happiness can be. When we allow ourselves to realize that happiness doesn’t always come packaged in the same box, that what one culture dictates as the right form of happiness doesn’t hold true for all cultures, let alone all people that belong to that culture, we can truly open the doors to a more blissful life. And trying to write about this book has hit home Weiner’s excellent point that there just aren’t enough synonyms for happy in the English language.

On All Your Worth

It didn’t take much for me to fall in love with Elizabeth Warren. Her progressive politics, her earnest concern for the plight of all Americans, her frustration with policy decisions that routinely reward big finance over honest people, her ability to shut down detractors with facts and heart, her near-obsession with the stories of bankrupt families in an effort to figure out how we can help them… she just makes me swoon.

Warren’s memoir, A Fighting Chance, left me quite smitten with the Massachusetts senator. It also lead me to an even earlier work of Warren’s entitled All Your Worth that has the potential to transform the way most Americans handle their money for the better. Written with Warren’s daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, All Your Worth is a financial how-to for the average working American. The two Warren girls set out strict but clearly outlined (and thus, easy to follow) rules for the way we should spend our money in order to maximize the value of both our saving and our spending. I don’t usually write about (or read about for that matter) financial books, but I couldn’t fail to provide some humble promotion to a book as rare, useful and comprehensible as All Your Worth (and much more practical than the lottery or a Mr. Money Mustache lifestyle). Plus I think a book like this, one that is so unfaltering in its commitment to helping everyday people, proves yet again why Mrs. Warren would be a wonderful leader of this country if she ever decides to take the Presidential plunge.

The basic formula set out by our authors is a 50-30-20 balance between our Must-Have expenses, our Wants spending, and our Saving, respectively. Challenging the way we conceptualize need in 21st century America, Elizabeth and Amelia define items in the Must-Have category as things you cannot cut out, the bills you would still pay without fail if you lost your job or faced a major financial downfall. So no, cable TV, an internet connection, and dinners out do not fall into this category. But beyond tightening the circle of need, Warren and Warren Tyagi explain methods to downsize on those Must-Haves that seem fixed in stone. There’s a very thorough beginner’s guide to refinancing your mortgage with a large emphasis on questions to ask a lender when shopping for new loans. There’s advice on how to tackle daunting credit card debt – lots of advice. There’s straightforward methods for lowering your insurance costs, exploring every possible option to get those Must-Haves to 50% of your monthly take home pay or less. And there’s clear and simple explanations as to why 50% is the magic, practical balance.

Then come the Wants. Trips to the movies, a trip to the local pub, subscriptions to HBO, vacations overseas, birthday and Christmas gifts. All those things, big and small, that make life a little more pleasurable or exciting or relaxing after the mortgage and the doctor’s bills are paid. What’s more, the Warren ladies make it super simple to track these types of expenditures. Just use cash. I know, it can be difficult to pay for everything you want with cash due to the proliferation of so many online marketplaces. And true, maybe that credit card company wants to reward you with goodies for a certain level of spending. But the only way to have a fast and hard idea of where you stand with your budget is to use good, old-fashioned cash for the things that aren’t budgeted for, the bright little spots of fun in your spending. I haven’t been one to use cash ever since I received my first debit card. I used to cringe at the thought a pocket full of twenties despite the eye rolls when I told people I only carried plastic. My mother, the kind of woman who is infamous for her ability to render exact change from her wallet, has stopped asking me for money when she’s at the register and needs a spare one-spot. But reading All Your Worth forced me to challenge my assumptions about this longstanding method of financial transaction. When looking at my bank account statements, it’s really a headache to parcel out where my spending diverges from my spending on wants. And of course I won’t stick to a Wants budget if it isn’t easy, or downright effortless, to do. So I’m trying cash for the first time in ages, just a budgeted amount I put in my wallet each week. If there are any leftovers, I’ll put that cash to the side in a little rainy day fund, ensuring I’ll have something to pull on when I want to buy a pricey concert ticket, take a vacation, or shower my mom with a really thoughtful Mother’s Day gift. The more I think about it, the more doable it seems. I may be required to pay with a card every now and then, but it won’t be difficult to remember to detract a certain amount from my weekly cash allowance when plastic purchases are made so sparingly. So far, it seems simple as pie.

Finally, there’s the savings category. I was actually a little surprised by the low budgeting – only 20% – to savings. But All Your Worth really stresses the importance of having a good chunk of Wants spending to enjoy life – and saving smartly to make your 20% grow it something much more than the face value of what you initially put in. The world of investing seems impossibly daunting to me. As often as I see my elderly housing clients barely subsisting on their monthly Social Security checks, I’ve kidded myself into thinking that smart saving will be enough to supplement that inevitable fixed monthly income. But the Warren ladies bring the world of investing out into a more accessible light, with overviews of what type of stock options to seek, defining all those acronyms like IRAs, explaining all the means of growing a retirement plan. They don’t even need to devote that many pages to their savings advice because it’s reduced to the simplest, most user-friendly tidbits that readers need to know before their money is off and running. After 15 minutes of research on my bank’s website (and of course reading All Your Worth), I set up a retirement account that I’m confident is a small step towards a more comfortable life when my working years are over. And once a down payment on a house is out of my pocket, even more of my savings will be invested in the type of investment options that are safe and just plain smart for someone my age. Thanks Warren girls!

If nothing else, All Your Worth gave me more confidence in myself as a financial powerhouse. Maybe that’s strong language, but I feel like I can get there someday. I know what to look for when mortgage shopping, something that was previously so scary as to make me reconsider my dream of home-ownership. I know how much money I should keep in the bank and how much to invest. I know that I’m doing what I can on a daily basis to make managing my money easy and effortless. I know how to still enjoy myself without a wracking sense of guilt every time I spend money on me. I know how to have difficult financial conversations with my husband even. All Your Worth lays out an incredibly easy plan for reducing debt and reducing worry, for building wealth and building financial happiness. The book is really more of a kick in the butt, than anything else, reminding us of our personal responsibility in our own financial security but also highlighting the often obscured ways we can exercise that responsibility. It’s unnerving to hear Warren hearken back to the days when there weren’t foreclosures in every neighborhood because the bank wouldn’t even think to lend you the money on a home you could not afford. While the financial rules and regulations certainly don’t make it easy for people to hold on to their hard-earned money, we as educated consumers can do just fine avoiding the loopholes and debt that banks and credit card companies prey upon. And if there’s one person that can elucidate everything a consumer needs to know about his or her money, I don’t think it could possibly be anyone other than Elizabeth Warren.

On Visiting Winterthur

Taking full advantage of a day off for Good Friday, my mom and I visited the Winterthur estate in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware. Originally the home of Henry Francis du Pont, the property is over 100 acres large and boasts a museum, garden, and library. My main attraction was the grounds, consisting of a sprawling 60 acre naturalistic garden which models the way that the decorative plants, shrubs, and trees contained therein would arrange themselves if found in nature. The photos below are my attempt at capturing a portion of the early springtime beauty to be found on the gorgeous property. My mother and I took countless pictures of majestic magnolia trees, paper-thin pink azaleas, brilliant yellow branches of forsythia, delicate white snowdrops, and a whole host of tiny buds just starting to bloom. Even at $20 a pop just to enter the grounds without a museum tour, the garden is such a sight to behold that it makes the property worth a visit.

Although we didn’t tour the museum this time, the history of the building is what made most of an impression on me. Originally a much smaller home for the du Pont family occupying the property, eventually it grew to be an unimaginable 9-story, 175-room home. Today the house is occupied by the Winterthur museum, showcasing decorative arts and galleries of textiles, ceramics, antique furniture, and more.

As we approached the home, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles which provided a portrait of an incomparably rich American family, the Siegel’s, in their attempt to build the States’ largest house, modeled after Versailles. The sheer enormity of 175 rooms rings as rather wasteful to me. Obviously the du Ponts lived in a vastly different time, but the inequality inherent in a world where homes such as this one and the one which the Siegel family aimed to build exist is impossible to ignore. The fact that any family has the ability to be so over-housed while others have no homes whatsoever or live in properties that are falling down around them makes me unspeakably frustrated and angry. As my mom pointed out, at least the du Pont estate opens this home up to the public, however this comes at a price of $30 per ticket for the museum tour.

We can fawn over the wealth and property of others all we like, but doing so ultimately serves as a stamp of approval from society when it comes to vast income inequality. I would rather see Winterthur as a true relic of the past, a picture of exorbitant wealth that a universal middle class could visit (for free! or at least at a much lower ticket cost) with a sense of wonder since no such grand displays of money are to be found among modern men.

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On Lydia Loveless

From the first twangy guitar riffs on the opening track off Somewhere Else, Lydia Loveless wormed her way right on in to the alt-country corners of my heart. The Colombus, Ohio-based singer songwriter has proven musically irresistible with her fourth album, a brilliant blend of country straight out of the honky tonk and unapologetic punk rock. It’s damn hard not to compare Loveless’ vocals to those of Stevie Nicks or Bonnie Raitt, but her sound is unmistakably original and her big voice comes as a huge surprise once you see the petite 23-year-old it comes package in. Lyrically the album proves that the young but mature performer doesn’t take herself too seriously despite all the heartache and experience she’s got to sing about.

Unfortunately I can’t say that I’ve given the whole album a proper listen; so smitten as I am with the first six tracks, the remaining four see far fewer rotations. The 25 minute timing of my commute doesn’t help, especially since I love to both start my day and blow off steam on my ride home with the album’s rocking opener “Really Wanna See You Again,” a tune about the temptation, made worse by drug-induced emotionalism and lack of judgment, to contact an old, now-married lover. Another favorite about unrequited love is “Chris Isaak,” a deceptively optimistic song about remorse and doing things differently. “To Love Somebody,” the most poppy track on this release, is a meditation on the meaning, pains, responsibilities, and inconsistencies of being in love.

Despite the fact that most of these songs dwell on love lost and the hurting after a relationship goes awry, Somewhere Else isn’t an album just for the love-lorn. Rather it’s an intelligent, ambitious, and even fun reflection on intimacy that anyone can enjoy for both its songwriting and the musical joy it brings. More than that, it stands as another example of excellent  up and coming female singer songwriters worth paying close attention to.

 

 

 

 

On Labor Day

Image retrieved from http://www.bookfinds.com

I was initially drawn to previews for the film Labor Day because of the story alone: a single mother living takes in an escaped convict and the two fall in love. The tragedy of the conflict and the romance that must exist for a woman to so blindly endanger herself and her son sound like the stuff of a great story. When I realized it was all based on Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, I did what I usually do in such situations: requested the book from the library as soon as possible and avoided clips, trailers, and reviews of the film as much as possible in an effort to preserve the wonder of reading a story with no preconceptions or spoilers.

Maynard crafts a compelling plot in Labor Day, a narrative that is uniquely told from the perspective of Henry, the thirteen year old son of Adele. A recluse after a series of harrowing miscarriages and a divorce from Henry’s father, Adele interacts with few people other than her son. Her efforts to avoid the outside world go so far that Adele and Henry only make trips to the grocery store once every two month, subsisting upon frozen dinners and canned soup between each stop in town. But over the Labor Day weekend before Henry is to enter the seventh-grade, he convinces his mother to make a trip to the local Pricemart for additional provisions. With a kind face, a gentle demeanor, and clothing that makes it appear he is an employee of the store, a stranger named Frank approaches Henry and asks for a ride. Already having identified Adele as Henry’s mother from across the store, he pleads with the boy to convince his mom to exercise some kindness towards this man. While readers may never fully understand what it is that causes Adele to so uncharacteristically agree, especially in light of the fact that minor but noticeable traces of blood pour onto Frank’s shoe and below the brim of his hat, she does and Frank makes his way home with mother and son.

The escaped convict is quite open with Adele and Henry about his situation. In need of an appendectomy, Frank was transferred to a hospital from the state penitentiary and following his surgery, jumped from the hospital’s second floor window. Maynard’s characterization of Frank is so endearing, engaging and kind-hearted that you know his crime, the nature of which the author withholds for some time, is most likely fraught with misunderstanding, maybe an accident for which this otherwise decent man has taken the blame. And so it isn’t at all hard to believe that Adele and Frank could fall as deeply in love as they do over the long weekend.

Initially enamored with Frank himself, Henry learns many things from the man that is more of a father figure to the young boy that his own dad Richard. They play baseball, make a perfect pie crust in stifling near-100 degree heat, dream of escaping to northern Canada, and have conversations with Henry that make him feel a part of the relationship developing between his mother and this man. But readers cannot forget that Henry is also at a tender age in the throes of a tough adolescence, a young boy as lonely as his mother, partially on account of her strange behavior.

During a trip to the library, Henry meets Eleanor, a tortured girl one year his senior who has a history of divorced parents and an eating disorder. Desperate to be liked by someone his own age and to explore his burgeoning sexual feelings with someone of the opposite sex, Henry soaks in Eleanor’s knack for victimization. He shares with his new love interest the fact that his single parent mother recently started dating a new man. The young girl quickly twists the situation in such a way as to make Henry feel the outsider, as though his mother would abandon her only son to be with Frank. Once this cruelly misguided idea is planted in his mind, Henry begins to question Frank’s motives, as well as his mother’s, and resent their lovemaking each night, their shared looks and plans of escaping to start a new life where the authorities are not on Frank’s path. Eleanor’s suggestions also make clear to Henry just how much power he holds over the new couple. With a simple call to the police, Henry could not only claim a $10,000 reward, he could send Frank back to the penitentiary and prevent the loss of his mother’s love and attention, things he has never had to share before.

Henry’s moral dilemma and the resultant string of events following his meeting with Eleanor are not as well executed as the earlier portions of the novel, but things occur in such a way as readers expect that they must. I was completely engrossed by the beginnings of the novel, largely until Eleanor enters the picture. By that point, I was so enamored with the pseudo-family forged between Henry, Adele, and Frank, that I was rooting against the odds for nothing to interfere with the life they erected over this Labor Day weekend. The way things unfurl in Maynard’s version is just one of a few predictable and realistic potential outcomes, but the execution proves a bit rocky in action. The conclusion felt rushed in comparison to the slow pace at which Maynard allowed the weekend to so pleasantly unfold elsewhere in the novel. But maybe this is just my aversion to Eleanor speaking or my dissatisfaction with the fact that everyone didn’t ride off happily into the Canadian sunset as neatly as readers hope they will.

The world of Adele and Frank is completely developed through Henry’s eyes, a narrative choice that I initially thought was pretty bold but, in time, proved wise and effortlessly smooth. Because Henry is not party to the throes of affection, readers can better retain a more realistic perspective on the Adele-Frank relationship. Our narrator’s naivete allows us to hold out hope that love and familial happiness will prove triumphant, while his jealousy tempers this nearly impossible wish and evokes a very visceral conflict in the character and readers alike. While we may recognize Henry’s concerns as mildly selfish and largely misguided, his ability to voice them in the narrative puts readers at enough of a remove from the love story that Maynard can create a larger family drama out of the plot, rather than simply romance. It was a surprisingly but ultimately rewarding choice on Maynard’s part to have her youngest, most adolescently-unstable, inside-observer character serve as the narrative voice.

After finishing up Labor Day, I dug into the special post-conclusion section published in my copy which included an interview with the author. It turns out that Maynard actually had a written correspondence with a convict that seems to have partially inspired this story. Someone to whom she refers as Lucky wrote her a letter after reading a series of newspaper columns she had published. This Lucky figure was someone Maynard responded to and, in time, began to feel rather close with. I hate to give away the ending of this story, so skip the remainder of this paragraph and the entirety of the next one if you want to read Maynard’s telling for yourself via her website. But I think the true life conclusion highlights some important truths about the novel’s conclusion and the ideas explored by the author therein. Maynard felt it would be a breach of trust to ask Lucky why he was imprisoned, so she refrained from doing so for the entirety of their correspondence. But when he told her that he was about to be released from jail and planned to visit Maynard and her three children, fear got the better of her. When Maynard contacted the prison to inquire, she was told that Lucky had horrifically murdered his parents and would essentially never be released from jail given the number of years for which he was sentenced. She immediately cut off all correspondence with Lucky.

Though it was disheartening to discover that Lucky was not who Maynard believed him to be, the very fact that she went on to compose a novel dealing with a character not so unlike her imprisoned pen pal signifies the depth of his impact on the author, even though their relationship was entirely based upon written word (although she is a writer, so that may have something to do with how powerfully connected they were through mere letters). Learning about Maynard’s relationship with Lucky elucidates the myriad ways we humans are inclined to make excuses, compose arguments, or erect blinders in an effort to confirm our perceptions with the anticipated or actual truth. In the case of Frank, readers are immediately smitten and recognize the goodness of his character despite whatever faults or flaws may have landed him in the state penitentiary. Readers do not essentialize Frank as a criminal, and for this reason they will seek any evidence available to point to his innate goodness. We are rewarded for our faith in Frank by discovering that his crime was largely accidental, the result of a gross misunderstanding, rather than a reflection of a truly cruel and perverse nature. Likewise, Maynard did not allow herself to question what type of behavior Lucky could have engaged in to end up where he did, because doing so could interfere with her conception of Lucky as a generous, kind, thoughtful, and loving person. The morality of how we exercise these judgments upon others based on their actions, in isolation from the other traits they embody, is a moral dilemma we each need to wrestle with on our own. But the very fact that we do this in a routine way is something Maynard cunningly uses to her advantage in Labor Day to indulge readers and fuel the plot. I can’t speak to the merits of the film, but at least give the novel version a shot first, for it is completely engrossing and serves as a sharp observation on human nature.

On San Fermin

San Fermin’s self-titled debut album is a surprising bounty of sounds as varied as anything available in the musical market today. Though the main man behind the album’s beautiful, intriguing, and wonderfully over-the-top compositions is Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the use of multiple lead vocalists wisely increases the depth of San Fermin’s catalog. A 17-track release, the San Fermin album covers an impressive range of variations on orchestral pop musical styles connected by a delightfully eccentric aesthetic and a common storyline.

It’s extremely difficult to isolate any of these 17 tightly knit songs, each one serving as a crucial scene in the development of San Fermin’s theatrical composition. The album is an interplay between a male and female character involved in an “almost-romance” as described by their composer. Developed over the course of the album, this relationship allows listeners to experience the highs, lows, insecurities, melodramas, and tensions of love in an originally cinematic musical form.

But if we must evaluate the album’s tracks individually, there are certain songs that stand out for their emotive power, objective beauty, and pure originality. “Crueler Kind” is an easy favorite, the second track on the album and the first to feature female lead vocals. The song unassumingly opens with a Lorde-like, rhythm-fueled vocal riff, quickly blooming into a joyous but moving opera of female vocals. “Casanova” comes as a mournful strings-driven turn, with vocals as deep and brooding as any song by The National. Apart from the undeniable similarity between lead male vocalist Allen Tate’s voice and that of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, justifiable comparisons between the two bands could also be attributed to the fact that Ludwig-Leone worked on arrangements for the latter in the past. But The National isn’t the only band to have influenced San Fermin’s efforts (or maybe, like me, you’d rather consider that The National was influenced by San Fermin first through Ludwig-Leone’s prior work with the band). I couldn’t help but find hints of Sufjan Stevens as well, another performer with prior ties to Ludwig-Leone. Reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s best efforts, the penultimate track “Daedalus (What We Have)” is introduced by a few stark notes from the horns and isolated vocals from Tate but grows into an ambitious cacophony of percussive sounds, a flourishing chorus of female back up vocalists, and whimsically layered instrumentation.

Even with the most cursory listen to just a smattering of tracks from San Fermin, it is explicitly clear so many bastions of high musical taste consider this debut album to be one of last year’s most remarkable releases.

On The Other Typist

Image retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com

Author Suzanne Rindell crafts an enticing, easy to devour story of deception and sin in her debut novel The Other Typist. This is the kind of book you can (and I certainly did) finish in a single weekend, a pleasurable story full of suspense and scandal. Set in the 1920’s, Rindell’s prose rings with the effortless formality of that era’s speech, never jilting or awkward to read as such writing can sometimes be. Her picture of Prohibition-era Manhattan is replete with flapper dresses, edgy bob-haircuts, dark alleys leading to speakeasies, and all the glamour and depravity expected of that time.

Rose is an immediately endearing character, but her reliability as a narrator and her purity don’t take long to come into question. At first, she seems the picture of simplicity and goodness with her uncomplicated lifestyle, her remarkable plainness, and her ability to recognize and quickly forgive the faults and flaws of others. As it is revealed that Rose grew up in an orphanage, we learn about her exceptional capacity for observation, developed at a young age but in her adulthood, bordering on voyeurism. The purity of Rose’s nature becomes increasingly questionable when a new girl is hired at the office, an alluring but mysterious woman whose favor Rose fools herself into thinking she doesn’t desperately want to win.

Working at a Manhattan police precinct during the early days of Prohibition, Rose is initially one of three typists on staff, but becomes one of four when Odalie is hired to meet the increased demand for stenographers due to rising alcohol-related arrests. Odalie’s arrival is treated as ominous from the moment she steps through the precinct’s doors for her interview. Fashionable and obviously from a moneyed family, Odalie possesses a magnetic presence and a stunning wardrobe. Through the first person narrative, Rose drop hints as to how everything will change once Odalie comes into her working life. At first we are just privy to the daily minutiae of the precinct, gossip about the new girl, minor transgressions when some of the typists exclude the other ladies from a lunch date, and a cast of drunken criminals providing incoherent testimonies for Rose to transcribe. During this time, Rose’s keen observation of her new coworker manifests itself as she keeps notes on Odalie, becoming both overwhelming suspicious and jealous of the new hire. But when Odalie befriends Rose, treating her to lunches at white tablecloth restaurants and eventually inviting her to live in the spare bedroom at Odalie’s spacious apartment, Rose’s initial misgivings about Odalie are immediately forgotten.

Rose delivers her narrative from an unidentified point in the future, struggling to tell the story of past events in chronological order. She makes repeated reference to her doctor, assumedly one from the mental health field as it becomes increasingly obvious that she is unstable, easily influenced, unreliable in the narrative, and maybe even prone to illusions of grandeur and resolute morality. Odalie introduces Rose to the world of speakeasies, fashion, and high society. Though she strenuously argues otherwise, Rose’s will and sense of goodness is not so strong; she quickly succumbs to the temptations placed before her by the new typist, going so far as to forge the testimony of a serial murder who won’t speak in an attempt to see justice done. Odalie’s motives for applying to the precinct were initially questioned on account of how she presented herself; such a stylish woman obviously comes from good breeding and shouldn’t need to work to survive. Rose accepts Odalie’s haphazard excuses for these sorts of incongruities, accepting that the truth of Odalie’s past will never be nailed down. But to both readers and Rose alike, the later revelation that Odalie is involved in the speakeasy community, importing illegal alcohol, comes as no surprise.

In fact, the majority of the book hovers upon similar suspicions that are usually confirmed. This predictability, however, isn’t boring because the personalities and stories are so fascinating to discover in their unveiling. While there is an overriding ominous feeling that something large, terrible, and irreversible are about to occur, the beauty of the book lies in seeing just how such events play out, in determining the full extent of Odalie’s sinful nature and Rose’s blind loyalty and naivete.

Rose’s story is ultimately about betrayal, temptation, loyalty, and the ways in which morality can go against the grain of social codes. So completely obsessed with Odalie, Rose ties herself tighter and tighter into bundles of trouble that she has no hope of removing herself from, sometimes consciously and other times at the hands of Odalie without a hint of suspicion from Rose. The play of deception is a constant undercurrent of the story, the source of the twists and turns that make it so interesting despite the often easily foreseeable turns of events. The course of Rindell’s novel also speaks to the glitz and glamour that makes it easy to forgive, if not deny against all evidence, the sins of others, and how we are so easily enraptured by such superficial and socially valued things as wealth, expensive wardrobes, and glittering diamonds.

Although The Other Typist doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking in the world of suspenseful, thriller novels, it’s a highly satisfying addition to the genre that will quickly envelop you in Rindell’s fictional world, never sure whether to champion, abandon, denounce, pity, or even trust the unsteady Rose.

On The Dhamma Brothers

I’ve long been a sucker for a great before and after story. The transformation archetype comes in so many appealing packages; as a hilarious episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy profiling the transformation of an unkempt young man into a self-caring, well-groomed, more considerate gentleman; as the written memoirs of a life changing journey along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; or even as the stunning visual transformation of a slovenly room turned into a magazine-worthy high style space. And when the sure to please before and after story tackles issues of social relevance, such as the American prison system, with meditation as the transformative catalyst, I am completely on board.

Following a selection of inmates at an Alabama maximum security prison during their foray into a meditation program, The Dhamma Brothers speaks to the common humanity we share with people whose existences are relegated to the confines of a jail cell, the weaknesses of our current criminal justice system, the powers of the practice of meditation. The vipassana meditation program instituted at Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility requires inmates to engage in an intensive ten days of meditation, nine of which they must remain completely silent. Forcing people who have committed crimes that landed them in jail for years, if not for the rest of their lives, to identify emotions from a place of observation and nonreaction is no small feat. And it certainly makes for a compelling story.

The documentary film profiles four of the inmates participating in the meditation program, highlighting their early histories, the situations in which their crimes were committed, the resulting sentences, and often their remorse as well. Nearly all of the inmates we meet are charged with murder or homicide, but The Dhamma Brothers makes more human the people who committed these most inhuman of crimes. Putting a face, a voice, a story, a struggle to these men’s experiences serves as one of the foundations from which viewers can evaluate for themselves the prison industrial complex, a very well executed move by the film’s directors Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura, and Anne Marie Stein.

The audience is also privy to the prison administration’s skepticism prior to and even upon the completion of the program. For obvious reasons, executing a Buddhist meditation program to criminals imprisoned in a Bible belt state is bound to be rife with obstacles, misunderstanding, and judgment. Then there are also the vipassana leaders themselves, anxious and uncertain as they prepare to guide inmates through one of the most intense personal challenges anyway could chose to embark upon, and the psychologists and social scientists who share their primarily confident views on the power of meditation.  The directors capture the various moving parts involved in pulling off a program such as this, replete with the stigmas, doubts, and opinions of all parties.

But the vast majority of the film profiles the inmates’ journeys, identifying how strongly these men were transformed by the experience of vipassana. Family members, correctional officers, vipassana teachers, and of course the inmates themselves all provide moving testimonies upon their completion of the initial ten day meditation retreat. Maybe even more profound, however, is the way in which the new meditators struggle when they are no longer able to practice or find themselves without a community of like-minded practitioners. The men try to sustain their practice by holding daily sessions following the first ten day retreat. Soon enough the prison officially bars all group meditation on account of its Buddhist roots (in opposition to the largely Christian culture of the facility). Nearly all of the inmates seek other ways to meditate, so desperately do they require a regular practice in order to be their best selves. One of the inmates is transferred to a lower security prison, but speaks of the difficulty he encountered in adjusting to the culture. Without a community of meditators, in the absense of other inmates that endured the vipassana experience that so deeply changed himself, he finds it difficulty to sustain this now-essential practice.

The film’s impact on viewers slyly parallels that of meditation on the inmates. A gut-wrenching example of love and acceptance, one inmate cites vipassana as the reason he feels love for the man who murdered the inmate’s daughter. Recognizing that her murderer is still a human being, there is no room for hatred in his heart, even for a person who so irrevocably and brutally ended his daughter’s life. Likewise I doubt many audiences can come away from The Dhamma Brothers without an expanded sense of love and acceptance for these men, despite their horrific crimes and dark pasts, their unspeakable sins and irreversible mistakes, for they are still human just like us. The documentary’s directors ensure that audiences are unable to deny this most universal sense of common humanity we share with the folks captured on screen.

Part of what I found so moving about the film was simply seeing the inside of a penitentiary, not the set of a TV show cell or the all too familiar visitation rooms complete with thick glass dividers and old fashioned phones. A uniformity of beige cinderblock, solitary confinement rooms, padlocked doors, correctional officers on patrol, a sea of white-clothed men with hanging heads and handcuffs, patchy grass in the prison yard surrounded by chain link fencing and barbed wire. These rather mild images made all too real to me the sense of despair, depression, remorse, and hopelessness that an inmate must feel. To imagine that these are the only sights a person can hope to lay eyes on for the duration of his or her life. To be housed in such a “correctional” facility without receiving any rehabilitative services to provide even the smallest glimmer of hope that life after serving a sentence could be better enough to guarantee freedom. The images of prison life captured in The Dhamma Brothers alone unearthed these thoughts in my head, leaving me with a sense of deep sadness. Add to that sorrow the profound remorse and enlightenment these men found after meditating, and it was hard to feel anything but despondency that people are relegated to such heartrendingly bleak, monotonous, dead-end existences. I’ve always felt that our prison system is vastly under-rehabilitative and aggressively punitive, offering no form of practical guidance and displaying not a trace of Christian forgiveness. Encouraging them to confront their deepest faults and mistakes through a meditative practice is a incredible opportunity, but a tiny step in the grand scheme of things. 

One of the qualms I sometimes experience as a practitioner of meditation myself is how self-involved a concept it can be. The idea of utilizing this method to achieve enlightenment or to commune with the divine or to wrestle one’s personal demons are all veritable but ultimately selfish goals. The Dhamma Brothers, however, highlights some of the ways in which meditation serves a greater purpose than the one it most obviously serves to the person in meditation. As an inmate states in the film, if everyone in the prison had been practicing vipassana before they committed the crimes which landed them in jail, maybe they never would have seen the inside of the facility at all. The repercussions of their practice ripple continually outward to their community of inmates, to family and friends, to viewers of the film and even theirs feelings for total strangers. The Dhamma Brothers serves as a stark reminder of how meditation is not solely an individual transformation story. Simply witnessing the ways in which the practice impacted this group of Alabama prison inmates can be a true transformation experience for a casual viewer.

On Tiny Beautiful Things

Image retrieved from reviews.libraryjournal.com

I’m beginning to think that Cheryl Strayed is one of the most remarkable humans I could ever know (in the figurative rather than literally knowing her personally sense). With wit and humor and wisdom and personality and so much heart you can’t stand it, Strayed, under the auspices of “Sugar,” maintained an anonymous advice column for The Rumpus website which has now been compiled into a brilliant single volume entitled Tiny Beautiful Things. Not usually one for advice columns (I can’t stand the idea that people actually compose a frivolous letter to ask such trivial questions as what to buy as a hostess gift or how to handle a dispute about which European country to travel to for a family vacation when the answer is painfully and obviously to just have a conversation about it!), I kept this one on the shelf for a while before I felt compelled to crack its spine. I adored Strayed’s memoir Wild but couldn’t jive with the advice column format, much as I knew her readers would have more profound and heavy questions than your standard ladies’ magazine fare.

Shoving my biases and fears aside, I plunged right in on my lunch break one day, ready to toss the book if I wasn’t smitten after the first 40 minutes of reading. I was won over in just 5.

At first, the thing I found most remarkable about Dear Sugar’s column was the vast array of life experience she has to draw from. Nearly every response to her readers includes an anecdote from her own life; her horrendous loss of innocence at age three, the heartbreaking tragedy of losing her mother, sweet moments with her husband who she adorably refers to as Mr. Sugar, vast suffering, trials and tribulations from parenting, countless friends who’ve cried upon her shoulder for reasons she recounts in order to help readers find their way. The fragmented pieces of her life are revealed in each response as isolated events, but we can still string together from them, and the general timbre of her writing, an idea of who Cheryl is, how she faces life, embracing the messy, awful, fullness of existence with a go-get-’em attitude. The Dear Sugar column wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if she only had those negative stories to share, rendering her obvious appetite for life all the more vital and worthy of imitation. So while it’s true that Cheryl has had to endure far more tragic experiences in her lifetime than anyone ever should, she doesn’t shy away from life in the least; she has determined her own fullness of existence, accepting, pursuing, embracing the range of glorious and breathtaking along with the awful and ugly.

Anyone can identify a time in their life when they felt heartbroken, despairing, confused, at a crossroads, or any of the other ways we feel when life throws us a curve ball that requires some coaching to hit. But it is a rare gift to take those uniquely personal emotional experiences and relate them to a reader enduring such specifically different struggles. Cheryl thoughtfully identifies the universality in each letter she receives, and ultimately it is that ability, rather than an exceptional depth of experience, which allows her to meaningfully connect with each and every reader in her responses. By thinking critically about her reader’s concerns and treating them with all the respect, concern, and dignity deserving of a dear friend, Dear Sugar is able to transcend the advice column format to a whole new level of connection, guidance, and healing. The result is an inspiring, invigorating, capable-of-restoring-your-faith-in-humanity thing to behold.

Sugar’s readers provide her with questions as varied as relationship uncertainties to which we all can relate, brutal personal roadblocks in life that need to be overcome, family shackles, crossroads decision-making, parenting advice. Letters came from jilted lovers, happy halves of strong relationships, recovering-addicts, young and naive twentysomethings, world-weary middle-aged readers, mournful souls, writers with strength of character bleeding through their words. No matter what the situation or who the writer, Cheryl’s responses are full of wisdom and spunk, not only educational for the letter writer but enjoyable for a reader of any kind.

I was completely moved by how totally Cheryl gave herself over to readers, allowing herself to lose sleep over their letters, putting her whole heart into providing (brutally) honest answers that we would normally expect only from the closest, if not harshest, of friends. But every response was fueled by love, as Cheryl softened the necessary firmness of her responses with validation of each reader’s feelings and a gentle understanding of the struggles that compel someone to write a stranger for an answer, complete with endearments like honey bun and sweet pea. I was amazed, not just by the strength and wisdom of the content of Cheryl’s answers, but in her absolute mastery of the advice column craft, how perfectly balanced her responses were in tone and form, how deeply attuned to people given the brevity of their inquiries.

You may not be experiencing any major crises, crossroads, or turning points in your life. Uncertainty may be a vague memory from the past, pain only a dull ache that your heart has not had to endure for years. But still Dear Sugar holds something for you. This book is not just for the troubled, confused, or heartbroken; it is a meditation on the human condition, the sufferings large and small that make up our lives and how in the world we’re supposed to rise up and meet them. Her refrain is continually that the answers lie within; we write to Sugar because we fail to trust our instincts, because we need someone to validate what we know we need to do, because we require reassurance to take control of our own lives, because we seek permission to allow ourselves pleasure and generosity and kindness. Downright essential in a crisis, the affirmations that Cheryl provides under the auspices of Dear Sugar are nourishment for anyone intending to lead a fuller life with confidence and grace and the very best of human instinct.