On Homegoing

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Let’s just add spreading the word about Yaa Gyasi’s stunning novel Homegoing to the ever-growing list of reasons why I adore Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was Coates’ off-hand endorsement of Gyasi’s debut in a recent article that first alerted me to the presence of this instant classic. Once I caught onto the buzz via Coates, it was pretty hard to ignore the cacophony of rave reviews, podcasts, and bookstores, all imploring me to read this book. Then I suffered a few agonizing weeks, waiting for everyone else who had heard the buzz ahead of me to return their copies to the library so I could take my turn. Spoiler alert: Homegoing was totally worth the wait.

There are literally thousands of reviews out there lauding the achievement that is Homegoing, and still I feel compelled to add my voice. There isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been covered regarding plot. The story begins with two half-sisters, unknown to one another, who lead very separate lives in Africa. Effia, married to a white man, becomes ensconced in the comfort of the Cape Coast Castle, while her sister, Esi, comes to live in the very same castle, only she is one of many women kept in the dungeon and sold into slavery. From this starting point, Gyasi follows each woman’s lineage, alternating between the two family lines with every other chapter. But rather than following Effia’s or Esi’s life stories to their respective ends, Gyasi only devotes a single 20-odd page chapter to each character in her story. And so a child of the protagonist from the preceding chapter becomes the new protagonist in the next chapter and so on across the generations.

In so doing, Gyasi covers over 300 years of story, from the eighteenth century through today, profiling specific moments in time from the lives of just a few members of this family. She creates a remarkably complete portrait of the family’s past and present, finding ways to subtly tie loose ends and clear up those questions left unanswered when she abandons one character’s story for that of his or her offspring. Beyond that, Gyasi crafts a fully realized study of the experience of black families across both time, as three centuries of story are captured here, and space, as Effia’s descendants mostly remain in Africa while Esi’s live in the United States.

Though readers may at first consider the general outlines of these characters’ stories rather archetypal, from the runaway black slave who will never know true freedom to the single mother finding community in her church choir, Gyasi is remarkably apt at filling them in to their most fully realized extent. Although we may get only the smallest taste of any given character’s circumstances, Homegoing never wants for greater detail. Despite being an oft-overused and thus weak statement, there is no more apt way to put it than to say that Gyasi makes her characters come to life. She does so in a tender, artistic, and seemingly effortless way, leaving me in awe of her talent and unable to select a character that was my favorite, nor one that felt underdeveloped or that I disliked.

Gyasi not only captured an incredible story in Homegoing, but maybe even more remarkably, she shared it in a beautifully inventive and surprisingly comprehensive fashion. I think this is what struck me most about the novel, the way in which brief snapshots of so many interconnected yet disparate lives were able to so thoroughly capture the black experience. As a white woman, I completely acknowledge the presumptuousness inherent in me writing that Gyasi has captured the black experience; this is obviously an experience that has never personally been my own and all the books in the world could never provide me enough insight to equal the actual experiences of black people themselves. However, I believe most readers would be hard pressed to find a novelist who has provided this type of insight in greater measure than Gyasi has here. In conveying the stories and histories of African and African American people so effectively, Gyasi makes them become at once both universal and absolutely singular. Relatable to those outside the black community through the unapologetic rendering of each character’s essential humanity, their flaws, inconsistencies, struggles, passions, and triumphs, while also brilliantly detailed enough to highlight uniquely specific experiences of life that many readers may otherwise never know. Seeing how Gyasi strikes a perfect balance between these two qualities is quite a treat for readers, but also seems desperately necessary now more than ever. I think Roxanne Gay put it best when she said “Homegoing is a very confident debut novel. Exceptionally engaging and the strongest case for reparations and black rage I’ve read in a long time.” Gyasi renders the existence of intergenerational poverty and structural racism utterly undeniable, logically connecting the historical experiences of black people to the reality of their lives today.

While the structure of Homegoing is unlike anything I’ve ever read and the subject matter is oftentimes heavy, ranging from tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante people to drug abuse, single parenthood, and the violence and abuses of slavery, it is a quick and absorbing read. The frequency with which new characters are introduced, the desire to know what happened to the previous protagonist, and the language with which Gyasi writes all make this novel rather easy to settle into. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Homegoing one day becomes required reading in the classroom. It’s that kind of good, that kind of important, that kind of accessible.

I will admit, I found the ending a bit underwhelming, but mostly because it felt pretty inevitable. This is one of those cases where the cheesy saying is totally true: it’s about the journey and not the destination. While readers won’t have trouble guessing how Gyasi will end her novel, that’s not why you pick up a book like this one. It’s the process of getting there, of seeing how Gyasi takes us through the ages and does so in such a riveting and artful way, that makes Homegoing worth a read.

One of my litmus tests for books is the degree to which I want to discuss a book with others as soon as I’m finished reading. Similarly, the amount with which I recommend a book to family and friends is also highly associated with my opinion of it. I guess the two are intertwined, along with my desire to write this review; good books beg to be shared, discussed, and read as far and as wide as possible so that they can foster more sharing, more discussing. Gyasi’s debut is one of those books that I’m absolutely aching to talk to someone about. I’ve already advised several family members and friends that it’s a must-read, and now I’ve taken to the internet, hoping to connect with other readers who can fill the void in me as I eagerly seek a dialogue about just how incredible Gyasi’s Homegoing is. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly and I couldn’t be more excited to hear from others who consumed this book with as much gusto as I did.

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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 The Righteous Mind

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I was initially sucked in by the title – The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Though I don’t get too caught up in political debate, I am a self-proclaimed liberal and often find myself wondering how those on the other side of the spectrum can vote as they do while still maintaining a sense of decency. So I knew Jonathan Haidt’s book, if it delivered even a fraction of what its title promised, would be informative and eyeopening. Plus, Haidt is a social psychologist, a brilliant combination of two disciplines that are fascinating to probe. Though I completed The Righteous Mind nearly one month ago, it has stuck with me like a bad habit – I can’t stop seeing the political and religious discussions around me in Jonathan Haidt’s terms.

Haidt’s book opens with an explanation of the workings of moral intuition. He makes a strong case that we experience gut intuitions first, then rationalize those feelings later, drawing on innumerable studies that the reader can’t help but exercise for him or herself. His aim is to elucidate how we make arguments to support our positions after we firmly entrench ourselves on one side or the other.

From there, he takes a global look at morality, proving American ethnocentrism in the process. In an attempt to define morality, Haidt suggests that the actual standards which define the moral code are far from universal. Though he identifies a distinct set of six moral principles held in the US, he determines that members of political and religious groups understand and use these aspects of morality in distinctly different ways.

Haidt’s book is not an admonishment of liberals, but he does encourage readers who fall into that category to allow themselves to entertain his argument (Haidt admits to being of a liberal mind too). Authority, liberty, sanctity, care, equality, and loyalty make the six “taste receptors” of morality, but liberals only make good use of a handful of these elements, while conservatives utilize the entire spectrum. Liberals are more likely to appeal to care, equality, and liberty – issues such as freedom from oppression, social welfare for the poor, and an end to animal cruelty are all typical causes that liberals advocate for and support. While liberals fail to address the tropes of authority, sanctity, and loyalty, conservatives pick up these arguments with gusto. This was the most clear explanation of why many poor middle Americans support the Republican party, although to do so seems anathema to their own best interest. For many of these people, a high premium is placed on submission to authority, religious practice, and loyalty to one’s country and family. Although the social policies of Democrats may favor these voters, the arguments of the Republican party appeal to their value system on a much wider basis.

But both political parties appeal to fairness and this is still a deeply divisive issue among the American people. Haidt suggests that is not that one party values fairness more than the other or even that one side’s appeal to fairness is stronger or more well constructed. Rather, fairness is defined in vastly different ways across the spectrum. Most liberals define fairness in terms of outcome – redistribution of income, for example, should be instituted in an effort to equalize the financial outcomes for everyone. Equality of outcome matters most for liberals. On the other side, conservatives believe in proportionality – everyone should be rewarded relative to the effort they put in. With taxation, for instance, a progressive tax policy would take from the rich in order to provide for the poor. To a conservative, such a policy violates proportionality, as the poor received much more than they contributed, while the rich received much less than they contributed. Though the entire book was worthwhile and eye-opening, it was this single argument that made the entire book worth reading for me.

Though Haidt spends more time on the political side of morality, rather than the religious side, that was just fine by me. His arguments are clear, concise, and relevant, even if overly simplistic. But the real value of his book lies in how Haidt challenges people from any political or religious walk of life to consider the opposing arguments and belief systems. People are so quick to support their own intuitions that they fail to realize how anyone could think differently than themselves. If we all considered the thought processes behind one another’s beliefs, we might find ourselves in a more peaceful and productive world.

On The Perks of Being a Wallflower (The Film)

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It’s a rare treat to watch a film based on a book whose director and author are one and the same. In fact, it’s something I never thought I’d be able to witness until the opening credits of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

I first heard of  the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower in my early high school years. I was lucky enough to sit next to one of the most undeniably cool girls in my class during freshman English. For some mysterious reason she took a bit of a liking to me, at least enough to chat with me while waiting for class to start. One day she offhandedly mentioned the book as one of her favorites, so of course I immediately rushed out to find a copy for myself.

Nearly a decade later, I learned that the novel was making its move to the big screen. I rarely have high hopes for books translated to film. Such conversions eradicate the world I created in my own head while reading and replace it with a new one, complete with perfectly primped actors and detailed sets and polished production. My expectations regarding The Perks of Being a Wallflower were no different – until I rented it from the Redbox and saw that Steven Chbosky, author of the novel, was credited as screenwriter, director, and producer of the film. I’ve long hoped to see a novelist take his or her story to the screen. I guess I imagined it would be a study in writerly talent and style, not to mention my own skills as a close reader. To see how my understanding of the world created by a writer compares with his or her own visual representation of it sounded like a fascinating opportunity. If nothing else, the author’s film version of a novel will undoubtedly be the most authentic cinematic execution of his or her work of fiction. And I was lucky enough to enjoy such an unexpected opportunity with this film.

Unfortunately I hadn’t touched the book for some eight or nine years, so my memory of the novel was cloudy and limited to one trademark line: “In that moment, I swear we were infinite.” Nonetheless, I was pleased with Chbosky’s recreation of the Perks story on film, though it took a bit for the movie to really grow on me. (And I must admit, I was surprised at the way in which the book’s most quotable line was delivered – the scene felt so far from how I remembered imagining it.) In the first half hour, the dialogue felt a bit forced, the set up of the relationship between the three main characters awkward in its very structure. I was hesitant to give myself over the actors and their manor of speaking – I couldn’t decide if some of the lines were just poorly delivered or poorly written by someone trying to sound young and hip. But soon after I was about to give up on The Perks of Being a Wallflower and halfheartedly finish it while looking up recipes for dinner, I started to find my attention unconsciously drifting wholly to the movie. After a watching the film a second time, I can certainly identify a few elements, including portions of the storytelling, the acting, and the writing, that are notably weaker than others. But my ultimate sense of the film remains firmly positive and I can’t exactly put my finger upon the source of this fondness.

Though the cast features a few big names with supporting roles, including Paul Rudd and Joan Cusack, the main player in this film has little name recognition. Logan Lerman portrays wallflower protagonist Charlie, an incoming high school freshman at the beginning of the film who makes brief reference to the “bad time” he experienced last year. Though we don’t know much about Charlie’s past troubles, we can surmise that they are psychological in nature, that he has few if any friends, and that he isn’t so good at making new ones. Ezra Miller is perfectly cast as Patrick, an outwardly gay senior at Charlie’s school. The only upperclassman in Charlie’s freshman shop class, Patrick generously invites Charlie to sit with him during a football game. Patrick introduces Charlie to his step-sister Sam, played by Emma Watson, and thus into their wider but tightly knit social circle of daring, Morrissey-loving, Rocky Horror Picture Show-devotee friends. Charlie’s troubles take a backseat to his new place amidst Patrick and Sam’s circle, especially as he grows closer to Sam, the object of his burgeoning affection. Though Charlie’s new friends appreciate his wallflower ways, their mere presence in his life can’t keep Charlie’s deeper problems at bay forever.

Much of my ultimate adoration for the film I attribute to Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Patrick. Miller gave a refreshingly honest and endearing performance as a high school-aged homosexual male, unabashedly himself and heartwarmingly sincere. He is just the kind of friend I wish I’d had in high school – someone who would never dare to conform, who deeply loves his friends with an unquestionable loyalty, who takes notice of others despite his seemingly-self-centered efforts to attract attention, and who is able to make even the most run of the mill days feel singular and epic.

A prime reason for the hesitancy with which I came around to this movie was the beauty of its ending – it both made up for and explained some of the elements that previously seemed poorly executed. The film’s conclusion reveals an important detail of Charlie’s past which is hinted at throughout the movie in a gracefully misleading manner. This revelation has great explanatory power regarding the protagonist’s disposition such that some of the previously awkward-seeming components are made much less so. In adding to the gravity of the story, the ending was also an opportunity for Lerman to really demonstrate the depth of his acting ability. And fortunately for me, I completely forgot this twist of sorts from back when I read the book, allowing me to savor the reveal like a first-timer to the story.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower made me yearn for my youth like few movies can. It portrays adolescence in such a heartbreakingly honest but romantic and whimsical way that I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for my high school days and what else that time could have held for me. Though the movie as a whole may not be an extremely accurate depiction of the typical high school experience, the feelings evoked by The Perks of Being a Wallflower are certainly ones I vividly remember having or wanting to have. The movie is a pleasantly surprising ode to youth but also an exploration of its more troubling aspects, of the highs and lows that come with adolescence, first love, and moments of feeling inexplicably indestructible and infinite.

On Bright-Sided

When I picked Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided up from the library, I was almost embarrassed to be seen with the book, even going so far as hiding the cover under those of the other books in my stack. The promotion of positivity is so pervasive in our society that I felt self-conscious checking out a book whose title suggested that positivity’s track record wasn’t so pristine. While it may seem counter-intuitive to practice anything other than positive thinking, Ehrenreich’s book questions the origins and virtue of blind optimism in a handful of the major industries, social groups, and academic fields in which positivity has gained wide traction. Ehrenreich’s argument is far from flawless and I’m not planning on embracing outright pessimism anytime soon, but Bright-Sided employs the type of critical thinking that is vital to improving America.

Starting with breast cancer support networks, then moving on to the origins of positivity and the industries of motivational speaking, corporate positivity in concordane with major layoffs, mega-churches, positive psychology, and finance, Ehrenreich tours the American optimism landscape in a handful of its myriad forms. While I appreciated each of Ehrenreich’s chapters for their own merits, her argument that these instances of blind optimism were undermining America, as suggested by the book’s subtitle, was not as well developed as expected. It was certainly interesting to take a glimpse into the bland, God-less, positivity-driven megachurch, televangelist, prosperity preacher culture, where religious teachings take a back seat to self-help sermons and weak anecdotes as evidence of the power of positive thinking. I’ve long held issue with the breast cancer survivor culture – in particular the “pink-washing” of products whose proceeds are purportedly directed to breast cancer research efforts in spite of the fact that many of these products (ie. water bottles, cosmetics, other plastics) contain cancer-causing agents themselves. I was delighted that Ehrenreich referenced Breast Cancer Action, a nonprofit challenging the dominant discourse on breast cancer in favor of one focused on prevention efforts and environmental changes to reduce exposure to carcinogens, although her main beef with the breast cancer culture is how blindly optimistic both patients and survivors are. It was mind boggling to recognize how the stories of those who have succumbed to the cancer are hidden behind the stories of survivors who consider themselves lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer for changing their lives in positive ways. Further, it was enlightening to have the holes in research supporting positive psychology revealed, as so often scientific findings are highly exaggerated by and for the media, while the null results and those that disprove desired hypotheses are buried.

But these disparate pieces failed to coalesce into a sound argument as to why having a positive outlook is comprising our entire nation. She did conclude with a chapter on the connection between positivity and the financial crisis, drawing a bit on the arguments set up in her chapters on prosperity preachers and corporations. I appreciated the way in which she tied issues of inequality and social justice in to this and the final section of her book. Despite the fact that upward mobility is more common in plenty of other nations, the fable of picking oneself up by his or her bootstraps is so pervasive in the US as to make Americans more tolerant of inequality and less cautious with our investments. Self-delusion was a large force behind the financial crisis, Ehrenreich argues, on the part of individuals, buying on credit they could never possibly repay and purchasing houses with adjustable mortgage rates that eventually forced them onto the streets, as well as bankers and executives, making unwise lending decisions, holding unbelievably high expectations, and failing to confront reality. The dissenters on Wall Street were routinely derided for their negativity and pessimism, so at odds with the new corporate culture. It is this portion of the book where Ehrenreich’s argument as to how positivity has undermined a nation becomes most solidified, though still not fully formed. And it segued quite well into her conclusion, in which she ultimately calls for realism, defensive pessimism, an acceptance of our vulnerability, and ultimately action to remove the threats to circumstantial happiness wherever we can.

As someone who partakes in meditation, I firmly believe in the immense power of our minds. Ehrenreich’s framing of positivity in the terms of “laws of attraction,” whereby you can exercise control over your world through your thoughts such that the things you want will come to you, did give me some pause. Her contention aims at the power of the mind in a more tangible sense; simply thinking hard about what you want will not make it appear for you as so many of the positivists referenced in this book profess. It is undeniable to me, however, that we exercise more than a modicum of control over our worlds with our minds – it’s why my wallpaper cellphone reads “Change your thoughts and you change your world,” a potent reminder of the way in which the things I dwell upon in my head shape my daily life experience. I do not disagree with Ehrenreich’s refusal to accept the law of attraction premise; it would be foolish to believe that we can get the things we want without working for them. But there is a fine line here that Ehrenreich fails to establish between the imprudence of meditating on prosperity in the hopes that it will effortlessly reveal itself and the faculty practicing meditation provides us in creating and controlling our experiences of the world.

While I’m not a highly cynical person, I also don’t adhere to the other extreme of naive optimism. From my middle road stance, I cannot see any fault in putting a positive face on in the glare of this at times harsh world. Even if positivity does not necessarily cause or correlate with improved outcomes in indicators such as life expectancy and financial success, it does undeniably contribute to happiness, which is enough of an indicator for me to give a positive attitude a shot. Blind optimism is certainly problematic when it undermines the work ethic that Americans have prided themselves on for so long. When we rely on prayer and visualization exercises, rather than practice, effort, risk-taking, and a little industry to get what we want, positivity breeds a dangerous laziness, a naiveté which easily transforms into an unsurpassable obstacle, even an abyss of bottomless debt. Bright-Sided is important for its very stance on the American mentality of positivity, its practice of constructive criticism, its call for widespread realism, and its exploration of certain worlds where people are taken advantage of and even placed in danger by the promotion of positive thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to exercise control over our own thoughts and minds toward the brighter side of life for our own personal wellbeing and improved life experience, even if we do so with a grain of skeptical salt. If nothing else, Ehrenreich’s book provides us with a healthy dosing of reality so as to prevent our positivity from reaching dangerous extremes while motivating us to take action towards improving controllable circumstances in order to make happiness more readily available to everyone.

On Moranthology

Image retrieved from http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

Caitlin Moran has quite quickly taken up residence as one of my new favorite writers. Though she is a renowned columnist across the pond, it all started for me with her New York Times bestselling book How to Be A Woman, a memoir of Caitlin’s girl- and womanhood. Spanning all matter of subjects relating to the fairer sex, Moran tackled pubic hair, abortion, undergarments, high heels, and motherhood in one seamless, hilarious, intelligent, and winning volume.

After that one, I couldn’t get enough Moran and so sought out her next book, Moranthology. Similar in structure to How to Be a WomanMoranthology is a series of essays on an array of topics that Moran handles with her trademark wit, sass, and wisdom. The content of the second book is a bit more varied than the first, including topics such as the Royal Wedding, her interview with Keith Richards, arguments for the preservation of chivalry, and the importance of libraries, but her reflections on each one were a bit brief for my tastes. The majority of the essays in the book are actually columns and articles that Moran had published previously, reprinted here for easy reading in all their concise glory. With each essay occupying little more than three pages on average, I felt as though I got to know Moran more widely than before, but not nearly as deeply.

Moranthology is highly entertaining, as has come to be expected of anything written by Ms. Moran, and a quick yet satisfying read. I aspire to be like Moran one day – making a living by writing about whatever quirky curiosity or everyday mundanity happens to light a fire under my essayist ass on a particular day. Despite her at times light-hearted approach to an array of subject matters, Moran demonstrates a thoughtfulness about the modern world that few pop culture commentators or members of the media possess. But it is this wisdom and depth that I wish Moranthology had provided more of – I found myself yearning for just a bit more out of each essay, hoping to prolong my move on to the next piece and the end of the book.

On By Nightfall

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After studying his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Hours in college, there was no doubt in my mind that Michael Cunningham is one of the America’s most brilliant living writers. Seamlessly weaving Virginia Woolf’s life and fiction with a story of his own creating, Cunningham’s novel is an intelligent and unsentimental woman-focused piece. Even more remarkable to me was the fact that The Hours was written by a man.

Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall is another thoughtfully crafted novel that astutely examines modern life, art, and family. Despite the rather elite station in life of Cunningham’s characters, this story deals with fairly universal human themes, including our desire for greatness, our ambivalence towards mortality, and our desperate human need to demonstrate some semblance of permanence.

Peter and Rebecca Harris are middle-aged New Yorkers, he a mid-level art dealer, she editor of a struggling cultural magazine. With Peter as our guide, Cunningham explores art, the world in which it is bought and sold, the constant struggle to discover level of creative genius that man may be unable to create but not unable to imagine. While Peter vacillates over whether to sign a recently dealer-less sculptor generating much buzz in the art world, he finds himself contemplating the very way in which he conducts his business. In Peter’s search for beauty (which he ultimately defines as “a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope”), he worries that selling art to an ever-dwindling population of buyers may not be his truest calling. But were he to go against his core morals by signing a highly coveted artist producing transient but expensive work, Peter would be better able to finance his continuous search for creative genius.

Peter and Rebecca’s marriage doesn’t escape examination, especially when Rebecca’s charming but flighty brother Ethan (referred to as Mizzy, short for “The Mistake”) comes to visit after his one-month pilgrimage to a Japanese holy site. Mizzy occupies the Harris’ daughter Bea’s room, infringing upon the quiet routine of the empty nesters’ thin-walled apartment and placing a strain upon their marriage by means of his drug use. Meanwhile the Harris’s young twenty-something daughter lives in Boston, a college drop-out who ardently supports herself without parental support by tending bar at a hotel. Bea’s false memories of her parents’ ineptitude complicates her relationship with both Peter and Rebecca, but is most troublesome for her father. Marriage, love, and family are the source of many complications in Peter’s life, including an inconvenient attraction to drug-addicted Mizzy and his inability to fully recover from his homosexual brother Matthew’s death some twenty years past. While Peter admires the ability of great works of art to exist in perpetuity, he struggles to deal with mortality regarding the untimely death of Matthew, a man that was so full of promise and talent.

Cunningham’s commentary on modern life rung harshly true at times, for Peter was predictably surprised by the ordinariness of his life and the lives of his family. It was quite ironic that I read By Nightfall in large part on the same day that I went to see Judd Apatow’s latest film “This is 40.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of much of what I saw in Apatow’s movie, which deals with family struggles, purity in art, finding meaning in the temporary nature of life, and middle-age on a more common level, while reading Cunningham’s book. But maybe this isn’t a case of irony at all. Maybe the coincidence of these two pieces of art (because I consider film an art form, no matter what genre), addressing comparable themes through different mediums at a common point in time speaks to a widespread need for consideration of these topics. Whether you choose to explore them through Cunningham’s sinuous novel or through Apatow’s lengthy but rewarding film, is up to you (though I would recommend checking out both).

On Sleepwalk With Me

I first learned about Mike Birbiglia when my aspiring-comedian husband Mike encouraged me to listen to Birbiglia’s one man show entitled Sleepwalk with Me. I was not familiar with the one man show concept at the time, but instantly took a liking to the extended narrative style of this brand of comedy/monologue (although the show isn’t always strictly comedic). I listened to Sleepwalk with Me on my commute to and from work and was quoting Birbiglia by day’s end.

Throughout the course of Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia relates stories from his first few years as a road comic when he also began to sleepwalk. Interwoven with this quirky tale of disordered sleep and painful-to-remember comedy gigs are anecdotes taken from Birbiglia’s family life and his relationship with college sweetheart Abby. Among my favorite bits are the portrait of Birbiglia’s father, a neurosurgeon who experienced random outbursts about snack foods; Mike’s gig hosting a college’s lip syncing contest; Birbiglia’s interpretation of the TLC show “A Wedding Story,” in particular an episode featuring a Jersey Shore-esque couple with alliterative names; and his dream of placing in the dust buster Olympics, which in reality, coincided with catapulting off a bookshelf and onto a TiVo. Birbiglia seamlessly moves from past to present as he relates a series of unbelievable incidents from his waking and dreaming life into a brilliantly absurd story. So when I learned that Birbiglia was taking the Sleepwalk with Me story (which was already available as a book) to the big screen, I was excited to see how the stories would translate to film.

With plenty of promotion in conjunction with This American Life’s Ira Glass, Sleepwalk with Me the movie has done quite well for itself, even winning a prize or two at Sundance. The film version of Birbiglia’s story does stay true to much of what he relates during his one man show, although I’m still a bit puzzled as to why he changed the protagonist’s name to Matt Pandamiglio. Mike as Matt narrates directly to the camera in a conversational style that works quite flawlessly throughout the movie. Though plenty of the anecdotal incidents that make Birbiglia’s one man show so memorable are referenced, this is ultimately a film about a struggling stand up comedian attempting to find balance in his career, his health and his relationship with girlfriend Abby (portrayed by Lauren Ambrose who, after watching the movie, I think was perfectly cast).

Mike/Matt tries to find his footing in the world of comedy, working as bartender at a club and filling in on stage whenever he gets a chance. He gets an in with an agent who sends him to gigs all over the eastern seaboard. Under the stress of traveling and trying to win over new audiences, Mike/Matt’s relationship with Abby predictably suffers. The strain of it all leads to the emergence of Mike/Matt’s strange and dangerous sleepwalking habit. It all comes to a head when Mike/Matt jumps out the window of his second floor room at a La Quinta Inn mid-dream, an experience that plays rather funny on screen.

There is something very honest and relatable about Sleepwalk with Me (although I may partially feel that way because I’m married to an amateur comic myself), much of which I would attribute to the way Mike as Matt narrates. Birbiglia/Pandamiglio’s world is easy to slip into and audience members are openly invited to act as voyeurs on a lot of pretty personal stuff. But Sleepwalk with Me strikes the perfect balance, handling some at-times serious content with the perfect touch of levity. The audience roots for Mike/Matt throughout, in spite of the obvious mistakes he makes, largely because it feels like he’s a friend telling us a great story – and he constantly keeps his audience laughing. From classic situational humor to Mike/Matt’s funny interpretations as narrator, Sleepwalk with Me is freshly and consistently hilarious. It doesn’t hurt that the film is also well-written, well-acted, and well-edited and includes a few great comedy cameos.

Though I have yet to read Sleepwalk with Me in book form, I think it a worthwhile decision for everyone to partake in Birbiglia’s story through their medium of choice. Though the main elements of the storyline remain the same across the different forms, there is something new to gain in each telling of the story. I found the film (especially the unexpected Backstreet Boys montage) deeply satisfying in spite of having listened to the one man show CD multiple times. Birbiglia’s story isn’t just one for the comics – there is a universality to this film that gives me hope that it will continue to do well.

On You Deserve Nothing

The end of summer marks the start of my favorite time of year. By late August, the coming of autumn is in the air. The humidity finally starts to abate and my garden is as abundant as ever. A little vacation to round out the summer doesn’t hurt either.

When my family and I head over to Deep Creek Lake for a relaxing week together away from the bustle of our normal lives, I most anticipate digging into as many books as possible in just seven days. I line up requests from the library weeks, if not months, in advance and pour over book reviews in order to make the most prudent choices regarding my reading materials. This summer I think I’ve done pretty well. And if I had to declare a single favorite from among all the novels I gorged on while away, Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing would easily win the prive.

The story of a teacher and his students at a Parisian school for diplomat’s students, You Deserve Nothing centers upon one of the international school’s most adored teachers, Will Silver, and two of the school’s most interesting students, Marie and Gilad. From the get go, I sensed that the beloved Mr. Silver allowed too many teacher-student boundaries to be crossed, from the manner in which his students were allowed to address him to his acceptance of an invitation to attend a student’s rowdy end of the school year party. It is often noted how his students all seem to fall in love with Will and even readers will find themselves unable to resist this character despite his pronounced flaws. Eventually that most dangerous of all lines is forsaken when Will and Marie become romantically involved with one another. This underlying premise rung a little tired to me, but I was not overly bothered by its commonality because of the brilliance with which Maksik tells the story.

Will develops a seminar for a select group of senior students which lays the real foundation for this novel. The course brings together a central core of important characters, including the somewhat reclusive Gilad, and allows them to explore literature and philosophy, debating the merit and weight of texts from thinkers such as Sartre and Camus in an adult fashion. These theoretical discussions parallel some of the central conflicts of Maksik’s story, of morality, courage, and existentialism. You Deserve Nothing could even be considered a modern adaptation of Camus’ The Stranger, one of the texts included in Silver’s course.

Though a lesser writer of this same story would have had many opportunities to go wrong, Maksik’s vividly drawn, compelling characters and thoughtful construction brilliantly carry this novel. The alluring beauty of Paris is subtly woven throughout, painting a most seductive portrait of France’s greatest city that is quite simply irresistible. The philosophical underpinnings that bind all these elements into an engrossing story are never forced or contrived, but rather finely complement the narratives provided from the perspectives of Will, Gilad, and Marie. Although it had much more depth and resonance than your typical beach read, Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing was by all means a great vacation novel, quickly engaging, fast-paced, and even slightly scandalous.

On Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is an iconic story chronicling a father-son American West motorcycle journey, peppered with philosophical musings and observations on American culture. This was a (530 page) book which I truly could not put down. Though Pirsig touches on everything from small-town USA to the definition of quality, from the structure of a cycle to the teachings of Plato, his book retains a coherence that draws you in and keeps you absorbed the whole way through. It’s pretty obvious why this book, based on events from Pirsig’s own life, has gotten so much hype.

On Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life

Recently I embarked on a daunting and arduous task: completing Gerald Martin’s biography of Colombian writer Gabriel “Gabo” Garcia Marquez. For Martin this was the work of a lifetime, quite literally; the biographer devoted 17 years to this passion project, conducting research and intensive interviews with over 300 individuals all in Spanish (though the book was first published in English).

While I never thought I could complete such an exhaustive study of one single, though undeniably worthy, individual, the biography reads much more like a narrative rather than an intensive listing of the events, places, names, and dates that make up a life as many biographies can quickly become. In fact, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life is highly reminiscent of the famed subject’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, though this may be because so much of his fiction is based on his own life (or maybe because of Martin’s serious emulation for, and unintentional imitation of, Garcia Marquez). And for anyone who has struggled with keeping the Buendia family tree straight, don’t worry: Martin offers a much more easy-to-follow genealogical record of his subject.

A praiseworthy biography, not only for the nearly two decades that Martin devoted to it, but also because it provides a careful, honest, and engaging profile of Colombia’s beloved Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

On The Robber Bride

I consider myself a big Margaret Atwood fan, though I’ve only delved into a few of her novels. And I actually only first read The Handmaid’s Tale because it was assigned to me for a class (though I was delighted to find it already on my bookshelf, probably purchased for a few bucks at some used bookstore, and thus not one I needed to add to the list of textbooks to acquire). But it was a novel that really stuck with me, though whether because of its feminist undertones, its narrative style or Atwood’s particular voice, I can’t really say.

I guess the reason I can call Atwood a favorite is because I know she’s reliable. If I’m in a fictional funk, unable to pick up any novels that satisfy my craving for a good yarn, Atwood is one author whose work I know will fit the bill – and there’s a lot of it for me to choose from. That’s kind of what happened with The Robber Bride. I went to the library in search of a post-worthy read, a book that would be worth all the time and effort required to finish it, one that would just beg to be shared with the blogosphere and my small community of readers. I have a huge list of books to get to but I find that few are right at my fingertips at the local public library. Nine times out of ten, I have to put in a request and get it shipped from another branch before I can delve into its pages. So I decided to browse the aisles instead and see what was already right at my fingertips and ready to go home with me. Atwood was it.

The Robber Bride is the story of three women whose lives have been inextricably bound by a woman named Zenia. Tony, Charis and Roz all attended the same university, lived in the same dorm even, but barely knew one another until Zenia, their ruthless, mysterious and beautiful classmate, wreaked havoc in all their lives. Though the three suffered Zenia’s malice in entirely independent encounters, the recurring patterns of her behavior and the lasting heartbreak she sought solidified a friendship among these three women whose commonalities were few and far beyond Zenia.

Told in brilliant Atwood fashion, when The Robber Bride opens, Tony, Charis, and Roz are having lunch some five years after Zenia’s funeral. When they spot her across the restaurant, as alive as ever, we are taken back to the formative years of this dangerous woman’s relationship with her fellow co-eds in order to unearth the character of a woman who faked her own death.

Currently a history professor, Tony was a quiet undergrad who uncharacteristically took up a male friend’s offer to attend a party one night in the hopes that doing so would lead to the unfolding of a beautiful romance. Rather, it led her right to Zenia, and their brief but intense friendship was unlike anything reclusive Tony had known before. We are then taken back to Charis’ unstable youth, as she was juggled among female relatives against her will and fighting against a whole host of inner demons. After college, Zenia enters Charis’ life when the later becomes a yoga instructor and Zenia arrives to her class with a plea for help that the sympathetic gentle Charis cannot refuse. And finally we meet a young Roz, the mysteries of her father’s work, the pull to leave home, and the day when, in an effort to shower some due attention on his wife, Roz’s husband takes her to the restaurant where Zenia waitresses and the two women connect.

As in a mystery, Atwood doesn’t give her readers all they may want or need to know right away, but we earn more and more details as we bide our time. That very form was actually one of my favorite things in reading The Robber Bride; we learn about these three women leading quite disparate existences but who, nonetheless, share a deep and lasting bond because of one mysterious woman. It takes quite a lot of time to discover why Zenia played such a significant role for each of them, how she irrevocably changed the course of their lives, and how it ultimately brought them together. In form, the story unfolds quite realistically, for we are thrown into the present moment with little context, and only in patient time can we expect for the pieces to come together and the larger picture to find itself revealed.

Though a bit dark and brimming with mystery, deception, and heartbreak, The Robber Bride isn’t your categorical mystery novel, harlequin romance, or indulgent piece of chic lit. Intelligently told and wisely crafted, the book has all the hallmarks of a classic drama, a soap opera even, but dispensed in measured doses and veiled under cover of Atwood’s talent as an alluring wordsmith. Though it clocked in at a daunting 520 pages, the novel didn’t feel lengthy or drag on at any point, but rather, quickly progressed in the anachronistic telling of these four women’s stories.

No matter what sort of book you’re in the market for, drama, romance, mystery, or simply a well-weaved story, I highly recommend getting your hands on The Robber Bride. As expected, reviews are good all around and this complex novel is accessible and entertaining for any reader without dumbing itself down to the lowest appreciable level. Margaret Atwood’s authorial stamp on any piece of fiction is a high recommendation in itself but if you need further encouraging to pick this one up, take my word for it. You will be happy you did!

On Last Night in Twisted River

Don’t let the fact that the first chapter of John Irving’s twelfth novel is focused almost entirely upon a logging accident in the New England town of Twisted River deter you from picking up this phenomenal book. As an Irving fan, I’m familiar with his work but never before have I been as completely engrossed and impressed with the novelist as when reading Last Night in Twisted River.

Though the story begins with a logging accident, it ultimately moves away from the town of Twisted River and on to settings throughout New England, the midwest, and even Canada. When Dominic Baciagalupo, the cook at one of Twisted River’s few eating establishments, and Daniel Baciagalupo, his 12-year-old son who becomes a writer as an adult, have to hurriedly escape from Twisted River, they leave behind their close friend Ketchum and what few other ties they have to learn to create a new life elsewhere. Circumstances are continually forcing them to relocate, settling down in new towns with new restaurants, friends, and women. An elaborate story strung together by friendship, family ties, and secrets both dangerous and dark, the novel nearly spans a whole lifetime but never once falls dull.

In classic Irving style, this intelligent story slowly unravels and then comes back full circle, complete with startlingly true characters and a teasing interplay with the novelist’s own past.

On Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Image from kingsolver.com

One year without supermarkets. One year of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting. One year without sugary cereals, Chinese food, delivery pizza. No processed foods. Everything local, hand-picked. It sounds like quite a daunting challenge: to give up mass-produced edibles and adopt a new food culture eating only what is in season and harvested by your own two hands, or by those of your neighbor. This is exactly what challenge Barbara Kingsolver and her family of four put themselves up to for an entire year, with all the struggles, joys, and recipes recounted in the entertaining and engaging Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really encourages you to look at the food you eat, where it comes from, how it is made, and how you can change these factors to enjoy a diet more healthy for you but especially for the environment. The benefits, both personal and environmental, of growing your own food and eating locally are endless – savoring foods when they’re at their peak, reveling in the flavor of produce grown at your own hands, reducing the incidence of cruelty to animals in food production, lowering the number of miles each item of food must travel to reach your plate, supporting local business- and farm-owners, enjoying a more healthy, whole-food lifestyle. And the detriments of the alternative are shocking – to get to your dinner table, the items in a typical American meal have traveled an average of 1,500 miles, through transportation, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration, and other forms of processing. Isn’t is so much more satisfying, healthy, environmentally-concious, inexpensive, and delicious to eat a tomato plucked from your own backyard than one from a pile in the grocery store?

So you don’t have room for a vegetable garden at your place? How about trying the local farmer’s market? Not only a farmer’s markets becoming more easy to find every year, they carry the best of the best in-season produce so you don’t have to worry if you’re fruits and vegetables are going to be good. Another great option is to join a CSA, community supported agriculture, where local farmers will deliver food direct to you on a weekly basis. You’ll never know exactly what you’re going to get, but it is guaranteed to be fresh and in-season. To learn more, visit Local Harvest.

And to learn more about Kingsolver’s book, to get recipes, and more, visit the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle website.

On The Book Thief

I recently finished re-reading one of my most favorite books, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Though technically a young adult novel, Zusak’s book tells a brilliant and important story for all ages. Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief highlights the struggles of maintaining friendships and a sense of humanity amidst the hatred, cruelty, and violence of Germany in 1939.

Liesel Meminger arrives to 33 Himmel Street to live with her new foster parents shortly after her brother’s death. Before Liesel is even 10 years old, she has already been torn from her mother and lost her younger brother – and life only gets harder from there. Told from the perspective of death, this ambitious novel follows Liesel’s path in her new life, the relationships she forms there, and the solace she finds in words.

Her first book, The Grave Digger’s Handbook, was a stolen from her younger brother’s gravesite. Though it takes her quite some time to complete the book, with the help of her gentle foster father, a poorly educated man himself, Liesel masters the book, and yearns for more. Over the years her episodes of thievery increase, but the compulsion to read proves a more powerful motive than the rush of burglary.

While reading offers Liesel a temporary respite from her reality, she soon learns the true danger of the real world when she befriends a Jew. Max finds his way to Liesel’s foster family’s front door and things are never the same from then on. The relationship that Liesel builds with her secret housemate plays a powerful but fragile role in her life, one that is defined by Max’s need to stay hidden in Liesel’s basement, his frail health, and his understanding of the power of words.

Though this novel is, at times, incredibly heartbreaking, it has moments of completely pure and simple joy. This dichotomy helps demonstrate the true despair and helplessness that shaped the lives of many people in Nazi Germany; The Book Thief illuminates the power of friendship at a time when maintaining certain relationships could be nearly impossible and positively life threatening.

I don’t believe I could ever really do this book much justice. It’s full of beautiful imagery, devastating loss, ambitious storytelling, childhood nostalgia, transcendent relationships, and a whole lot of heart. In my opinion the New York Times said it best when they reviewed this book as one with the potential to be “life-changing.” No matter what your reading style or genre of choice, this is a book that anyone with even a shred of humanity in them can learn from and appreciate.