Happy Friday! Although, it doesn't really feel like a Friday to me. My family and I just got back from a once in a lifetime sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands (post on that next week), so I hardly feel like I need the weekend to rest. I'll probably end up working through it in order to catch up on some editing jobs instead.
Meanwhile, I thought it would be fun to start a new Friday series to alert any interested readers to good Kindle book deals that I've found on Amazon. A few months ago, I stumbled on a fantastic kindle bargain ($1.99) for Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. I've only gotten around to reading it now, and of course it's hysterically funny (as Bryson always is), which reminded me how useful it is to hear about these kinds of deals when they roll around.
I did a quick scan of the Literary section of Amazon's monthly kindle book deals and found out they're running a great sale on Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun for $2.99. This is one of those books I think everyone should read.
It's about an American WWI soldier who is horribly disfigured in combat and wakes up in a French hospital without his senses of sight, hearing, or smell. He can't even talk, which kind of gives you an idea of the awful extent of his injuries. It's pretty horrifying, especially as he slowly figures out how badly hurt he is, and how he's essentially incapable of communicating with any of the hospital staff. To make things even worse, he's also lost his arms and legs...
Johnny Got His Gun is a book that's unequivocally about war and pacifism. It's written in the first person, which gives it a particularly frightening edge (and in fact, I think I first heard about it on a list of the scariest novels of all time).
Interestingly, the author, Dalton Trumbo, is probably more well known as a classic Hollywood screenwriter, who secretly wrote the Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday, for which he won an Oscar while still technically blacklisted during the McCarthy era. It's a fascinating story. If you're interested, there was a recent movie called Trumbo (staring Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston), which documents his and other blacklisted screenwriters' experiences during this time. Unfortunately, the movie is only OK, but not great, mostly because the screenplay and dialogue are fairly weak (ironically enough). The substance and the story, though, depicts a very interesting moment in history that's worth learning about if you're keen on writing.
Anyway, check out Johnny Got His Gun if you're up for a classic piece of literary/horror fiction. I don't think you'll find it cheaper and I'm not sure if this deal will last beyond the end of the month.
So Happy Friday and Good Reading :)
I had so many blog posts planned prior to the holidays, but in retrospect, I don't know how I thought I would have the time to write them. December just gets busy, but at least it's busy seeing people we love. This year my husband and I did what I like to call the "I-95" Christmas, which is a trek up to DC/MD, then CT, and back to DC/MD for a few days before returning home to NC again. Basically, we drove a total of 20+ hours on I-95, which is the major highway of the East Coast, running all the way from New England to Florida. It's about as exciting as you're probably imagining (in other words, not at all). But it's the only way to see all the family.
On top of that, we take the dog and cats with us, so it feels a bit like a traveling circus. One of these days, we're going to make enough money to hire a good pet-sitter, but as of now we tend to exchange pet-sitting favors with friends. That system works well until everyone leaves for the holidays...then it's a mad circular dash of "Can you watch my cat?"
Anyway, despite all the driving and celebrations with family and pets, I did manage to finish the book I was reading - Ringworld by Larry Niven. This is a classic science fiction story that I've seen floating around my parents' house since I was a little girl (for other recent reviews of classic sci-fiction novels, you should definitely check out the blog, Thank the Maker). I think my Dad periodically re-read Ringworld over the years, so I was familiar with the book's cover, but not the story itself. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I borrowed it from him over Thanksgiving.
Essentially, Ringworld is a story about a mixed group of humans and aliens that explore a strange artifact in space - the Ringworld - an enormous ring structure that circles a distant star at the scale of a planet's orbit. The interior of the ring that faces the sun contains an earth-like surface, but of much larger area. The main protagonist, the earthling Louis Wu, has a lot to say about just how hard it is to conceptualize the Ringworld's scale. When you're standing on it, there's no horizon since the ground essentially curves "up," resulting in the illusion that you are standing beneath an inconceivably large arch.
While exploring this strange artifact, the heroes end up crash-landing on the surface and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to leave again. What they find is a decayed civilization of strangely human people. Most of the story is trying to understand the mystery of who made the Ringworld, how it fell, and why.
This was one of those books I nearly gave up on several times, because I found the two human characters fairly annoying and undeveloped, but then each chapter would lure me in again with an interesting idea. Prismatic sunflowers. Floating castles. Artificial mountains. And I'm a total sucker for a story about ancient advanced civilizations. I also really enjoyed the two alien characters, Speaker to Animals and Nessus, because Niven did a great job of fleshing out their biology and inserting them into the context of a millennia-long galactic history. The world-building was pretty interesting, I guess is how I would sum up this book.
But although I enjoyed the broad scale of the story, I really struggled with how women were treated and described, which I think is just an unfortunate consequence of when the book was written (late sixties, published in 1970). There were only two women in the story and one of them is chosen to join the adventure because she's "lucky." That's literally her only quality - she's inhumanly lucky (although there's continuous debate about it). It's such a passive character trait, and it would manifest as her doing something stupid or ditzy, yet surviving anyhow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Then the remaining female character is quite literally a whore, and that's it. She has no other defining features or qualities.
So in the cast of Ringworld, you have a self-important man, two somewhat interesting aliens (one a dangerous tiger-like creature, and the other a cowardly, yet insane tripod "puppeteer"), a lucky ditz, and a bald whore. It's a good thing Niven's world-building is so strong, because he doesn't have much of a sense for character, which I think is a criticism you can apply to a lot of classic science fiction. It's definitely one of the main reasons I've often struggled to enjoy it.
Over the break, I found the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, at my parents' place and I very nearly picked it up, because after finishing the first book, I did sort of want to know more about who made the Ringworld. But I need characters I can "inhabit" to enjoy a story, and mysteries alone will only occupy my interest for so long (that's my main issue with the Harry Potter books). So I left the sequel on the shelf, though who knows, maybe I'll read it in the future.
In summary, Ringworld was good, but not great. I think it's worth reading if you're interested in science fiction as a genre and in its history, or if you want to try some "hard" science fiction that doesn't completely ignore characters, but be warned, they're nothing special.
Have you been reading any classic science fiction lately? I'd love to hear about it in the comments :)
So, I finished The Shell Collector yesterday, which is a book of short stories by Anthony Doerr (who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel, All the Light We Cannot See), and honestly I was a little underwhelmed. That's unfortunate, because The Shell Collector happens to be one of my mother's favorite books, and she's been trying to get me to read it for years. (I'm always about three to five years behind on any book recommendation, though I eventually get to them). The fact that I didn't like a book that my mother probably ranks in her top ten just further supports my theory that reading is a lonely thing, and you should never expect to bond with anyone over your favorite books. What's sublime to one reader is tedious for the next.
Personally, I just don't care for hyper-descriptive prose, which Anthony Doerr is admittedly very good at. I can see the talent, but it's not my cup of tea. I found the descriptions of every little thing distracting from the story, but maybe that was intentional, because except for "The Hunter's Wife" and "Mkondo", I didn't think any of the stories were very interesting. They felt repetative, particularly in terms of plot and character.
Mabye Doerr wanted to focus more on the prose style, which was lovely at a microscale, but also overwhelming at the macro-level. I can only imagine how many hours he spent getting each word just right, but it was too much for me. I guess I'm more of literary minimalist. I find that a single beautiful line in an otherwise functional paragraph has more impact than pages and pages of pretty words strung endlessly together. The only other book I've read by Doerr is Four Seasons in Rome, which again was beautifully written, but I was pulling my hair out by the end, wondering how anyone could make Rome sound so boring. Something has to happen for it to be a story, and it has to be believable .
For this reason, of all the stories in The Shell Collector, I disliked "The Caretaker" the most because it was utterly ridiculous. It's not possible to live in the woods for months eating beries and seaweed. You will starve to death, or more likely, give up and find someone who will give you food. Krakauer did a pretty good job of explaining the research on that in his excellent book, Into the Wild. So I think it's misguided to tell stories in the style of realism about people who hide in the woods and neither freeze nor starve. Sorry, it's just not happening. Please find some other way for your character to "grow."
Anyway, despite these criticisms, there's no arguing that Doerr's a great writer. He's just not the writer for me.
The Shell Collector, however, is just the latest book of short stories I've been reading. I don't know if it's because of my job, but I've been finding it harder to focus for long periods of time when I read. If I had any major complaint about making a living as an editor, it's that it has made reading into a job rather than a pleasure, and that feeling spills over into my down time.
So for the last few months, I've mostly been reading short stories, because they're fairly quick and I can switch around between different collections. It's just one way that I've been unconsciously dealing with my shorter reading attention span, which I think is understandable given that I spend hours every day reading very critically for other people. I only ever list the books I've completely finished in my reading list, so you don't see all the Cheever, Breece D'J Pankcake, and Phil Klay stories I've been reading at the same time, but anyway, that's been my reading pattern for the last few months.
Last night, I felt a little tired of short stories and annoyed at my inability to settle down into a novel, so I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, but I couldn't get into it. Then I found a paperback copy of Ringworld that I borrowed from my Dad's library collection over Thanksgiving, and fortunately that one has sucked me in. Thank god, because I needed to shake up this pattern, especially after the disappointment of The Shell Collector.
What are you reading these days?
Actually, I have no idea what this blog is about; whatever I fancy, I guess. But the sub-title is "for the word nerds," so I thought it might be fun to do some rapid-fire reviews of two books I recently finished.
The first is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's an epistolary novel (written in letters), about a group of British men and women who lived on Guernsey Island while it was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. At first, I was very pulled into the story - which is basically about how this group of friends got through the war within the companionship of a book club. I love a good epistolary novel, and the early letters cheerfully describe a version of postwar Britain that interested me. But after about 40 pages, you can't help but notice that all the letters, written between characters of vastly different backgrounds, sound exactly the same. It made it hard to keep track of people, or care about them. The plot starts off gently enough, the main character decides to travel to Guernsey to write about the occupation and the literary club, but then it turns ludicrous and almost creepy (for people who've read this book - didn't you think it was weird how Juliet essentially co-opted the deceased Elizabeth's life? She gets her house, her place in the community, even her kid!). I could go into the details, but the book really isn't good enough to bother with. Let's just say this: at one point, the main character gets jealous of a concentration camp survivor. wtf.
Interesting idea for a story (I had no idea Guernsey was occupied during the war), but the authors completely lose track of the main plot, so the reader gets a particularly inept ending. Two thumbs way down.
On to better things, I made a rare check off my "Books I Want to Read" list. The Time Machine is my first H.G. Wells book, which is insane considering he is more or less the father of modern science fiction and I'm a massive science fiction fan. I guess I worried the old-fashioned writing would put me off, and to be honest, it almost did. I found the first 30 pages a struggle to push through, and almost gave up, but I'm so glad I didn't. Once I got past the somewhat tedious setup, I was totally hooked. The way the Eloi were nearly as disturbing as the Morlocks was a really interesting touch. I also especially loved the ending with its descriptions of the far, far future, when the earth stops spinning, like the moon, so it always faces in one direction at the dying red sun. What an image!
It was interesting to read these two books one right after the other, because it made me think of a reading hypothesis I don't think I would have thought of otherwise. So here's my theory:
If a book has a really strong opening, that totally hooks you, it's probably going to peter out and disappoint you by the end. But if a book has a slow opening, push through it, because the rest of the book is usually pretty strong.
Master and Commander (one of my first blog-posts!) was definitely that way. It had the slowest opening, but it only got better, until I was having a blast by the end. Same with The Name of the Rose, which was supposedly written with a slow first 100 pages on purpose* to reward the readers who pushed through. And that medieval mystery has a mind-blowing ending.
Meanwhile, Gone Girl, had quite the opening hook, yet it's one of the worst books I've ever read. Just badly written garbage with nothing redeeming about it.
So that's my takeaway. Strong opening - be wary, slow opening - push on.
*According to my high school English teacher, who knows if this is true.
In an effort to improve my writing, I've been trying to take my own advice by working on more simple stories. I finished my first novel this past spring (and am almost finished editing it), and it's nothing more than a trashy romance story, which is all I asked it to be. It was my practice novel, and despite its total lack of literary merit, I found it very informative to write. It taught me a lot about setting up character and plot, and most of all, it gave me the confidence that I could finish a coherent 50,000 word novel.
I've since begun my new WIP, a light hearted novel that's supposed to be a step-above my practice novel, but by no means my intended masterpiece. It's a comedy, and I've been having a lot of fun writing it.
But as I reread sections, I couldn't help but notice that something wasn't working. Things that sounded funny in my head were anything but when they were set down on paper.
Fortunately, I started reading Nick Hornby's novel, Funny Girl, around the same time, and it helped me diagnose my problem. Basically, you can't write comedic timing, and if that's what your jokes are based on, they're going to fall flat on the page like mine were.
I'm actually a big fan of Nick Hornby's. I rank About a Boy as one of my favorite novels, though I don't know exactly why that is. It's not great literature, but it's entertaining, and it makes me feel more for the characters than most of the stories I read.
At first I enjoyed Funny Girl, which is Hornby's first novel in five years, but after a while it started to get really tedious. I had a hard time distinguishing characters, and the main character, Barbara, the eponymous Funny Girl, especially had this strange way of suddenly speaking up in scenes where I didn't even realize she was present. The whole thing was written in this very detached way, with little insight into the characters heads or even basic descriptions of the setting, but worst of all - almost none of the jokes landed. You can't call a book "Funny Girl" and then have it be unfunny.
But I realized I was making the same mistake as Hornby in my WIP: trying so desperately to write comedic timing. Here's an example from Funny Girl:
"We were asked to come up with a show about marriage," said Dennis.
Let's break this down. The "said Sophie" part is the closest to a physical pause in the dialogue as the author can create, which I suppose is meant to add more tension to the subsequent line, "So why didn't you do that?" I can imagine a gifted comedic actress making this sort of funny, but on the page it kind of reeks of desperation.
And the author knows it doesn't really work, so he has to describe Bill laughing and clutching at his heart. Personally, I think anytime we're reduced to describing physical actions and gestures as writers, it means we're not feeling confident in our ability to communicate to the reader. We're worried they won't "get it," so in response we try and show every physical thing that is happening (the writer's version of micromanagement), and it's just a slog to read. It's certainly not funny.
You might notice this attempt at transcribing comedic timing in your own writing (I see it in mine everywhere). It's apparent wherever you have to indicate a pause with blinks or facial contortions for comedic effect. Or you might mention that someone is being sarcastic, but that doesn't work either. The reader can't hear the sarcasm. They can't hear the pause. You have to be brave and let that stuff go. It does more harm than good.
The truth is, you can't write a book as though it were a movie, as much as we might want to. That's where Funny Girl really messes up. The characters always seem to be speaking up from out of a vacuum. It's almost entirely dialogue, which is probably because Hornby's gotten used to writing screenplays these last few years (he wrote the script for An Education), and has forgotten how to setup a scene that a reader can't physically see.
I actually had to stop reading Funny Girl because I was worried it was going to reinforce the bad comedic timing habit I was clearly writing into my own story. Writers have to read, I think, because we imitate other writers to some extent. Unfortunately, Funny Girl was not a book I wanted to imitate, consciously or unconsciously.
Do you struggle with this? I really have to stop myself from attempting to transcribe the movie that plays in my head when I'm writing. It just doesn't work.
Now please excuse me while I go back and edit out all those damn pauses and blinks from my WIP.
I wanted to like this book. I thought I did like it for the first few essays, but in the end I found Slouching Towards Bethlehem to be a big disappointment and waste of time. Joan Didion is one of those authors I'd always vaguely heard of, but never read, and then became much more aware of after the fashion brand Céline used her in an advertising campaign, much promoted on Instagram. Who is this chic old woman? I asked myself. Ah, Joan Didion. I kind of know her.
Except, I didn't, and there's nothing I hate worse than an intellectual phony. So I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem to remedy that.
The book is a collection of essays and magazine articles written during the 1960's. And when Didion acts like a journalist, reporting narratively driven facts in what we'd call longform writing today, I think she succeeds. She's a good writer, I'm not going to argue that.
But Didion gets bored with facts and stories and quickly the essays devolve into the tyranny of feelings. Practically, every other line has the intellectual depth of "How it felt to me" (134), or "because I'm talking about myself" (226). Maybe we should call her Mother Blogger. Or maybe just St. Joan, patron saint of millennials. It's hard enough being a part of that generation. I don't need to read her particular brand of it, fifty years ahead of its time.
And then there are the California references. She must mention that she is from California about two dozen times in this book, as if that's some kind of personal achievement, like winning the French medal in high school. "It's hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles..." (220) - oh spare me your West Coast snobbery. My least favorite essay in the collection was about her experience growing up in Sacramento, though I recommend everyone should read it just to learn for themselves why it's not very interesting to write about your home county, no matter how unique a place you think it was. Trust me, it won't translate.
And I'm not alone in thinking this book is overrated. The Amazon reviews seem to fall into two categories: I think I was too old for this, and I think I was too young for this. That's quite a trick to alienate every age group, but it also says something about the book's self-indulgence. These essays were written by Joan, for Joan, and I think she got away with it at the time because she was an attractive woman; the intellectual's California party girl. Today, her work fits neatly into personal journalism, Instagram quotes, Lena Dunham, and every other Web 2.0 application (like blogging!), having of course spawned all of it. I'd have a lot more respect for St. Joan if I believed she meant to do that on purpose.
I haven't done a book review in a while, and seeing as I just power-read my way through the last 150 pages of Atonement on Saturday, I figured now is as good a time as any to get back into it.
Atonement is one of those novels that has been on my to read list for ages. I've been an unwitting fan of Ian McEwan since I was in the fifth grade when I read his excellent kids book, The Daydreamer. Several years after that my mother recommended Atonement to me just after it was published, in 2003. However, I thought the synopsis sounded a little dark, so I never picked it up. Many years later, I did read McEwan's more recent book, Sweet Tooth, which I moderately enjoyed. The writing was excellent, but there was something a little off with the plotting, all of which made me even more resistant to reading McEwan's acknowledged masterpiece.
For whatever reason, I finally got over my hesitation and dove into Atonement this month, 13 years after it first entered my literary radar, and now I wish I had picked it up much sooner.
Let's get a few things out of the way. Yes, it is dark. Downright grim. In 1930's England, a little girl, Briony, incorrectly accuses a young man, Robbie, of raping her cousin, utterly ruining his promising life. To double the injury, Briony also manages to ruin everything for her sister, Cecilia, who'd only just realized she and Robbie were in love. None of that matters to the law of course, and Robbie is sent to prison and Cecilia left to wait for him.
Briony doesn't realize her mistake until several years later. Meanwhile, Robbie gets out of prison only by volunteering to join the army just as World War II is about to begin. What follows is a terrifying description of what it may have been like to retreat from France and evacuate at Dunkirk. McEwan also treats us to some pretty graphic storytelling about Briony's experience working as a nurse during the same wartime period.
As a work of historical fiction, I think Atonement is one of the best books I've ever read, probably because I have a morbid fascination with fictional descriptions of retreat. I live such a comfortable and predictable life, yet periodically through history (or even today in parts of the world) there have been events so horrible that the only recourse people have is to grab whatever they can carry and run for their lives. This is about as terrifying and disorienting an experience I can imagine. McEwan approaches these scenes with the novelist's sense for allowing discrete details to tell the story: limbs in trees; German airplanes attacking columns of fleeing civilians; the thirst when even water is a luxury.
Where I think Atonement fails is in its main character, Briony, whom we learn is also the narrator of the book (as in Sweet Tooth, McEwan has a soft spot for meta stories). Briony grows up, becomes a writer, and promises to confess her error in her last work of fiction. Meanwhile, she's celebrated and loved as a successful novelist, and because of some legal trip up, her final confessional will be published posthumously. No one will ever have to know her crime while she's still alive. That's convenient.
I found Briony's character unlikable and self-obsessed from the very beginning of the novel, and she never really improves. For all her claims of atonement, she never made any real attempt at it. If she'd really cared, she'd have consigned herself to the same fate of Robbie and Cecilia and thrown herself off a bridge. At the very least, she could have limited her life to penance, helping others as she had when she was a war nurse. Instead she gets to do exactly what she'd always wanted. Sometimes, I struggle with the idea that to be a writer is a selfish aim. The character of Briony certainly exemplifies that.
Anyway, to have an unlikable character is not a bad thing at all, but when you title a book "Atonement" and then do nothing of the sort, there's a stink of irony that doesn't sit right. On the other hand, maybe Atonement is a great book because clearly that bothers me enough to care.
I started Childhood's End with low expectations. Based on a short story that Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the 1940's, the novel begins when alien "Overlords" arrive on planet Earth and enforce policies that abolish war, hunger, and other human maladies. However, without these conflicts, mankind stagnates. Innovations in art and science end. Earth's citizens become a globalized race of dilettantes.
And yet, everyone's life undeniably improves under the Overlords' guidance. At one point, the head Overlord tells the people of earth, "Without our intervention, the Earth today would be a radioactive wilderness." They've saved man, but man is conflicted about why and whether they really should really be grateful.
For whatever reason, that premise never resonated for me and I hesitated to read this novel for a long time. It sounded like a dead-end idea. What could possibly happen under those conditions? Would the humans rebel? How would they succeed against the technologically superior Overlords? I'd thought Clarke was above that alien invasion/rebellion cliche, especially since his books tend to be very idea driven. For sure, Childhood's End is not a character driven story. It's not even clear who the main character is, because in Clarke's stories, characters are just perspectives on events, like different camera views that just happen to be convenient for the reader. And so for roughly the first half of the novel, we see from different points of view what it means to stagnate as a culture.
This idea wasn't terribly interesting, even if it rings true. I wondered if Childhood's End wasn't a little overrated. That's probably akin to blasphemy in the science fiction community, where the book sits comfortably in the pantheon, but it was hard to get excited about such a dragging conflict, if it could even be called conflict at all, as most of the novel takes place in the status quo.
Nor did I find the mystery of the Overlords' identity compelling, especially not when they eventually revealed themselves. I was expecting aliens in the style of Clarke's other novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey; beings that had progressed beyond material form to become something like gods. So it was a bit of an anticlimax when the Overlords eventually revealed their very corporeal bodies.
But despite all of these issues, Childhood's End slowly won me over, especially as the first half of the book turned out to be something of a red herring. It was never about the human race stagnating. It wasn't about the end of art and science. It was about evolution and layers of authority in the universe. It was about how tiny and individually meaningless we are on a galactic scale, but as a whole race, how we could be a part of something even bigger that is almost impossible for us to understand, because we have no context or comparison for it. Childhood's End not about how the Overlords were in charge of Earth. It was about who was in charge of the Overlords.
If Clarke had known how to write a family scene with the faintest interest, it might have been easier to get through the first half of the story, but I'm glad I pushed through those tedious descriptions of mid-century parties and home life to get to the bigger idea that takes place in the last hundred pages of the book. When you read Clarke, you read to understand the extremes of how life might exist elsewhere in the Universe, in ways your small life wouldn't otherwise allow you to conceive. That's where Childhood's End really succeeds.
Does it ever scare you to think about how we should probably listen to Clarke when it comes to these kinds of life-altering ideas? He's been right about so much else in his fiction, like geosynchronous satellites for global communication. In Childhood's End, he wrote this quote, which I find applies perfectly today:
"The world's now placid, featureless, and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason's obvious. There's nothing left to struggle for, and there are too may distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that 's available at the turn of the switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating."
Just replace the word, Overlords, with "Internet." We're at the same point, mindless consumption of entertainment and information; it's undeniably displacing our own creativity. The Overlords are already here.
So if Clarke was right about that, then what happens to us next?
Over the last few years, I've been struggling with what I like to call "busy brain." My brain won't shut up. If I'm not actively working on a project (reading, writing, music, painting), or telling myself a story while I take a walk, my mind starts to obsess about chores, errands, grocery lists, job stuff, and the Future. It's not pleasant.
It's almost like I get so worried that I will forget something important that I allow my brain to review a never-ending list of things I need to do and even things that are admittedly beyond my control. It drives me crazy. It helps to write these concerns down, to purge them from my mind somehow, but it doesn't solve the underlying issue. My brain just comes up with a fresh list to natter on about.
Unfortunately, I often take out the frustration of my own "busy brain" on other people, particularly my husband. Sometimes, it feels like I unintentionally volunteered to be the person who keeps track of everything, which makes me mad and resentful. I often feel that I want him to relieve some of the mental burden from me.
Do you ever feel that way? Like, why are you the only one who is worried about whether you remembered to pay the electric bill? Or gave the cats their flea medicine? Or whether it's time to get your car's oil changed?
But if there's one piece of wisdom that I try to remind myself of daily, it's that you cannot change other people. Full stop. You can only change or control yourself, particularly your reactions to other people or events. Yelling at my husband won't solve my busy brain. I struggle to remember that, but I'm always trying.
To get a better hold of my busy brain, I've been doing several things lately:
1) I talk to a therapist regularly. I cannot recommend this step enough. It is so helpful to feel heard and to have someone help you recognize patterns of behavior that may be negatively affecting your life. A perk of working at a university is that we have accessible mental healthcare on campus. Ask around, I think you'd be surprised at some of the places you can find a therapist outside of private practices.
2) I try to exercise as regularly as possible. Right now that means a daily 15 minute walk at midday, a 1 hour walk with my dog in the afternoon, and 10-15 minutes of strength training each evening (pushups, tricep dips, bicep curls, squats, and planks). Also, after taking a long running break, I've started to squeeze in a short jog (25 minutes) maybe once or twice a week.
3) And finally, I've started meditating semi-regularly.
I've been interested in meditation for a long time. Way back in high school, I had a Chemistry teacher who believed in the positive effects of meditation and taught our class a few rudimentary basics. By the time my brother had her for a teacher, she actually started each class with five minutes of simple meditation. A very interesting woman.
Since then, I've practiced meditation very sporadically. For a while, I used these guided videos from Yoga Yak, which are excellent, but since I moved to a house in the country where we have no internet, I haven't been able to use that online resource as often.
I've tried various apps, and some were good, some were ok, and some were so obnoxious that I found it impossible to focus. None of them really became a habit for me, though, probably my phone tends to initiate busy brain tendencies anyway, which sort of defeats the purpose.
Then I read this article from The New Yorker about a former buddhist monk, named Andy Puddicombe, who has been teaching meditation and mindfulness to laypeople for years, eventually developing an iPhone app that has become extremely popular. I thought what Puddicombe had to say about meditation was interesting, but I wasn't interested in purchasing another app subscription.
I did, however, give his book, Get Some Headspace, to a family member who I thought might be interested. Do you ever give a book and then decide you want to read it too? Well I bought myself another copy, read it in just a few sittings, and absolutely loved it.
I've been looking for a resource like Get Some Headspace since I was about eighteen years old and first noticed that my obnoxious brain was getting in the way of my relationships. And until recently, I don't think I understood how much my busy brain was also getting in the way of my writing. How can I sit down to write when I'm so worried about stupid things, like filing estimated taxes and returning phone calls, that I can barely think straight. You can't.
You have to stop allowing your thoughts to control your well-being and your life. That's how I understand meditation. It's about learning how to take control of your own brain rather than the other way around.
Or as Puddicombe puts it, "The one thing that remains the same throughout the day is that your thinking dictates the way you feel."
Exactly! I don't want to feel that rush of shame whenever my brain randomly thinks of an embarrassing memory. I didn't want to think about that time I said something stupid, but my brain has those thoughts on its own, and then I feel bad about myself. I didn't want to feel that way, but my thoughts are clearly out of control.
That's busy brain. It's mindless thinking.
I want to be a mindful thinker and I believe that's what meditation helps us to do.
Puddicombe does an excellent job of explaining some of these finer points of meditation. I guess I always misunderstood meditation to mean a state of mind where there is an absence of thought. So I'd evaluate my meditation practice by how few thoughts I managed to have. Apparently, this is a common misconception. By explaining the approach, practice, and probably most importantly, the integration of meditation and mindfulness into our daily lives, I think Puddicombe's book has done a better job of helping me to retake control of my thoughts, which allows me to feel calmer and better prepared to work on my personal, professional, and creative goals.
If you're like me and have a natural tendency to get "stuck" on thoughts or trapped in your own head, I think you should read this book. Ten minutes of meditation a day, plus a more mindful awareness of what I'm doing throughout the day, really does seem to make a difference.
Do you meditate?
p.s. Puddicombe also has a book out on mindful eating, called The Headspace Diet, which looks really interesting (less about what to eat, and more about how). If your New Year's resolution includes losing a few pounds, maybe it would be a worthwhile resource.
Happy Sunday to you all! It’s a cold, frosty morning here in North Carolina. We live in an older house that doesn’t heat very evenly, but that gives us an excuse to light a fire and hibernate on the couch. Most of yesterday was spent in this position, watching Foyle’s War. If you are in need of an excellent British mystery series (set during WWII), I can heartily recommend that one.
This morning I woke up and found there were still live coals in the fireplace, so I added some more wood and voila, another cozy morning that I’ve just spent finishing a book of short stories, How to Breathe Underwater. I really loved this book and thought it would be worth sharing.
I’d never heard of Julie Orringer before, but it’s a name I’m going to be looking out for in the future. Normally, I struggle with short stories because they require you to start something new every twenty-pages or so. I have a bad habit of resisting new stories (and new places, new foods, new anything really). I hesitate because I don’t trust that I will get interested or enjoy it.
I never had that problem with Orringer’s work. Each story is exceedingly well written. It’s good, clean prose that never gets in the way of the plot or the characters; a great example for students (and aspiring writers) on how to be descriptive without getting purple and obnoxious.
The stories generally center around young women in transitional moments of their life, but it’s hard to say exactly why each story drew me in so easily. Nothing happened that was too extreme (baring the first story!) and none of the characters were “quirky.” And even though each story was set in very different circumstances and locations (Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, lake-side, suburban-side), I found them very relatable, perhaps because the narrators were all young women or girls. They were believable. I’d make similar choices in their circumstances.
However, I will warn you that while the first story in the collection is probably the best, it is also the most disturbing. I randomly started the book on the second story (based on my mother’s recommendation), continued on from there, and only later went back to the first story. Frankly, if I had started with the first story, I’m not sure I would have felt brave enough to continue on with the others. I would have worried they all would be dark (they weren’t). I had the same problem years ago with Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. If you’re organizing the order of short stories in a collection, personally I think you should not start with one that is so agonizingly heartbreaking. Tuck that away for later.
My only other critique was that some of the stories in the collection progressed in a fairly predictable manner. Character, conflict, and setting were always strong, but occasionally the plot, while perfectly fine, didn’t surprise me. A few of the stories bucked this trend and I think they particularly stand out as the strongest in the book (Pilgrims, What We Save, Care, Stations of the Cross, and maybe Note to Sixth Grade Self).
Another minor issue I had was that some of the characters started having conversations to wrap up the story that I doubt anyone would ever have in real life. Fighting siblings and friends, in my experience, never talk out the issue. They just move apart or move on.
In any case, I really loved these and I hope to read more from Orringer. If you’re in the mood for meaningful, yet page-turning short stories, check out How to Breathe Underwater.
Writer, editor, scientist.