Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A few weeks off

Dear Readers,

AS many of you know, my family and I are taking a few weeks off to travel to China and meet the newest member of our family. As you read this we will be landing in Beijing. If you are interested in following our story, we will try to post to our China blog while overseas. I hope to resume this blog in mid April. So check back then.

I am taking a few books with me. I found a new travel memoir called Undress me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. A story of some young college graduates who set out to be a pair of the first people who back pack around China when it was first opening to tourists in the late 80s. This is already starting to be page turner. I am also taking Malcolm Gladwell's latest which I got for Christmas. So bring it on 12 hour plane flights! I am ready for you.

I would love readers to take a look at this article from the economist last month. It is a really sad and sobering article about the war on girls. If you have any other interesting articles to refer me to about Chinese adoption please post the links. Until then, see you when I get back.

Peace and happy reading!


Monday, March 29, 2010

59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

I was first introduced to Richard Wiseman through his blog. Mr. Wiseman is a psychologist and popular press author. He is interested mostly in debunking myth and the paranormal. His latest book, 59 Seconds, is a self-help book meant to guide people through the scientifically proven ways that they can help themselves.

He divides the book into sections: happiness, motivation, stress, parenting etc. He then proceeds to talk about what psychological studies say are the quickest and easiest ways to changing your life: things you should be able to do in less than 1 minute.

The book is fun and easy to read and some of it is rehashed from his earlier books: The Luck Factor and Quirkology. Wiseman has an oddball sense of humor, and I love the way he debunks traditional advice giving books in every chapter.

My favorite is actually the first chapter in which he discusses some easy paths to happiness. One of the best and most trusted is, you guessed it, write your way to happiness. I don't want to give away the others. Part of the fun of this book is that it reads like an old fashioned book of puzzles. Each chapter has new ideas and new ways of looking at things (all based in science, of course.) I actually felt like I should buy it to have by my bedstand in case I needed a few quick fixes.

59 Seconds really is the self help book that should end self help books. If self-help is your genre you should check it out. Don't miss his other two either.

Monday, March 22, 2010

When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

"The way women look at themselves, the way other people look at women, is completely different than it was 30 years ago...Our daughters grow up with the same possibilities as our sons." Betty Friedan.

I am an academic advisor by trade. I sit at my desk and give young men and women advice about what courses to take and how to pursue a career after they graduate. In fact, one of the best parts of my job is brainstorming with students about all the different ways they can use their degree and follow their bliss. I love watching their faces light up as they think of the myriad possibilities open to them.

It only occurred to me after finishing When Everything Changed by Gail Collins that my whole career of advising men AND women as to what careers they can pursue is one of the very things that has been changed by the modern day women's movement. There was a day when my job would have been as Dean of Women, and I would have counseled young ladies to be teachers or homemakers or nurses and never dreamed of talking with them about law school or travel or government careers. I never even question that all the women that come into my office will have every opportunity that men have. It is with this thought in mind that I, and all women of my age and younger, should shout a big thank you to the women who fought the battles and opened the doors for us. Without their help, we would not have been able to be the people we are today.

Gail Collin's history of the modern day women's movement in the USA is a profound and important testament to an age that I have taken for granted. Women like Alice Paul, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and thousands of others who are not so well known, organized, marched, brought lawsuits against companies (even when it cost them their jobs),and fought all the battles that allow me to sit in my office and wear pants, talk to men and women about what jobs that can apply for when they graduate, and not have to worry a bit that taking off to care for a new child in my family will cost me my job.

The story is an epic story and filled with details and interesting observations about work, child care, fashion, television role models, sports (go Title IX), politics and the actual events and players that changed laws and made history. Here's a few of the stories that surprised me:
  • There used to be male only flights with female stewardesses. Men were given extra large steaks, booze and cigars. The women were expected to bend over and light them.
  • Women couldn't get credit cards unless their husbands co-signed.
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg was invited to the Dean's house along with all the other females in her first year law class at Yale. The Dean jokingly admonished them for taking spots away from men.
  • There were no black women invited to speak at the occasion of King's famous I have a dream speech in 1963 even thought they did most of the organizing.
  • Women just couldn't wear pants anywhere except around the house.
These are simple anecdotes of the way the world treated and saw women from 1960 to the present day. The whole story involves getting all doors open: law school, medical school, the military and even the US Presidency. The story tells about equal pay for equal work, quality affordable childcare and simply put--choices. How did we become a society that allows women more choices than they have ever had to pursue whatever dreams and lifestyles they would want to pursue?

I don't for a minute think all the battles are won, but it is important to see how far we have come and who we have to thank for it. This should required reading for everyone aged 50 and under and a perfect story to read your daughter or your niece at bedtime. Please ask me to borrow my copy. I would love to lend it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

And the winner is...

For those of you who missed it, I was running a contest for Fiction February. I was asking for favorite fiction reads and all suggesters of fiction would get their names thrown in a hat and I would choose someone to win a favorite book. This took a very small hat. One entrant, one work of fiction, one winner. So, the person who suggested a work of fiction on my blog, the one and only Scott Semester from the blog All I'm Saying (41st most popular blog in Indiana, by the way), will win a book of my choosing from my vast library. Scott suggested I read The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. This appears to be a children's mystery story along the lines of Ellen Raskin. It looks fun and I hope you'll post here and let me know how it was, Scott.

An interesting tidbit for readers. Scott was, I believe, a sophomore at IU when he sat on a hiring committee that hired me to come to IU to run a student fitness/wellness center. (Don't laugh. It's true!) Isn't that right, Scott? We lost touch for many years until someone referred me to his blog which I read faithfully. He's quite funny and often posts humorous videos and articles. He inspired me (among others) to start my blog.

I have not quite chosen what I will send Scott. But it will be something funny.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What to read?

Dear Readers,

Please visit my new blog for the next edition of my reading recommendations. I'll be back in a few days with more good books.


Friday, March 5, 2010

JD Salinger 1919-2010*

I never really understood what was so great about JD Salinger's fiction. When I was a teen in the early 80's all the conventional wisdom pointed right at Catcher in the Rye. Groundbreaking! Shocking! Revolutionary! I picked it up at the library and read it quickly and prepared to be blown away. I was pretty disapointed.
"What's the big deal?" I thought. It probably was pretty revolutionary in 1951 when it was published, but I had already read the complete cannon of Judy Blume in which she writes quite frankly about all kinds of maturation issues and sexually explicit coming of age situations. I gobbled up Go Ask Alice an anonymous diary of a drug addicted teen. Holden Caulfield could hardly hold a candle to any of the heroines in my teen library.

In looking back, I realize that Holden Caulfield is a decidedly male protagonist with a male point of view written by a very male author. Most women comment that they did not particularly care for Catcher in the Rye either. I could not relate especially when I was 15.

What fascinated me about this book is the story of the author, JD Salinger. He hated publicity and after making it big with Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey (which I couldn't get into either.) he disappeared and became something of a recluse. After a story in the New Yorker in 1965, he never published again. Who was this enigmatic man and why did he choose a life of seclusion?

His recent death and NY times obituary made mention of two memoirs published by two different women in his life. Joyce Maynard, writer and novelist, quit college at Yale and moved in with him at age 18 (while he was 53!). The affair lasted a mere 10 months and took Ms. Maynard 20 years from which to recover. She apparently saw the light and published At Home in the World which is her memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family which led her to form a relationship with this unusual and controlling man.

Maragaret "Peggy" Salinger, his daughter, published her own memoir shortly after Ms. Maynard's hit the bookshelves. Peggy's coming of age saga Dreamcatcher was less focused on JD Salinger, but he haunted the background of her story throughout. Obviously Peggy has a much different perspective on her father and their relationship than Joyce, but the two women's stories are not incompatible and together make for a fascinating study of an eccentric man and a gifted writer.

At Home in the World is the more interesting of the two memoirs. Ms. Maynard is clearly a professional writer and knows how to tell a story and tells it well. I was fairly mesmerized by her and her life through the whole thing. Her JD was controlling and manipulative, but she was also quite stunted and ready to be controlled. It took her many years to recover. I think the most striking aspect of this story was Ms Maynard's own rise to fame as a reporter, writer and novelist. She lives the life I would love to live. She clearly has a gift, but no where in the book does she discuss a love of words and writing. For her it is always something of a burden or a chore. She can write, she is prompted and encouraged to write at a very young age (think stage parents for budding writers) and thus her career rises around her with some fanfare, but with no joy. I never felt like this path to the writing life was one I would ever take. Writing became simply her career and a means to an end. I doubt if the muse ever visited her. I learned a lot about writing and life simply from watching her live this forced march to writing fame.

Ms Salinger is clearly not the writer. She is compelled to tell her story in the same way Ms Maynard was but her story is awkward and changes styles frequently throughout. It fluctuated between an academic essay of her father's writing and how it parallels his life, and her own diary entries and letters. The first 100 pages or so were an explication of her father before she knew him: how the war and virulent anti-semitism must have shaped him. This part of the book will be especially appealing to you if you are familiar with his stories and novels, especially his early ones.

The next 200 or so pages are a blow by blow of all the steps and mis steps she took as a small child growing up in a recluse's home and the effects it had on her. The last 100 pages are how she got to where she is now. While her version has some merit, it is the most interesting when it intersects with Joyce's story. Somehow the two of them together can weave the tale of the enigmatic and troubled man.
For some reason critics have really bashed Joyce Maynard's memoir, accusing her of trying to cash in. In my opinion, so what? She has a tale to tell and she knows how to tell it. If that bothered JD Salinger maybe he needed to try a bit harder at being a recluse. Both these women have created timely narratives that should shed some light on Mr. Salinger and his life and work and also might teach a thing or two about writing memories.

*The editor is well aware that it is Women's History month and writing about JD Salinger is not exactly in keeping with the theme of the month. However, I do not particularly believe in marginalizing the history of women. It should be taught every month...just as African American History should be taught every month. So, given that JD Salinger is on my mind--he gets the first blog post of the month.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Guest Blogger: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Review by Rebekah.

In honor of Fiction February and One Book One Bloomington I have invited friend and fellow writer Rebekah to be my guest blogger. Enjoy, Esme.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

Had I been left to my own devices The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is most likely not a book I would have picked up. For me, covers and or titles can make or break a sale. The book title was in a red and yellow combination of block letters with the word Cavalier spelled with a K, like Kulture and Kute. Not a fan. But when I scan down further on the cover, there is the Empire State Building. Fan. At the bottom is the author’s name, Michael Chabon. Fan. So at this point the score would be two pro and one big con.

If I had been able to get past my aversion to the “K” issue and flipped the book over and read the blurb, I would have added another point to the pro column when I read that Joe Kavalier had smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague. I might have even given the pro side two points. (I can do this, it’s my own system.) Anything that has to do with the evil solution of the “Jewish problem” is of endless interest to me. Next I spot the words magic and the phrase comic book super heroes. Now we’re sitting on top of a very slippery slope.

Magic: Ugh.

Comic super heroes: take or leave.

Final score: 4.5 to 2.5.

Not a landslide victory for the pro side.

Quite luckily for me I didn’t have to go through this arduous process. My friends and trusted book recommenders, Jennie and David Orr, heavily suggested I read this book. They didn’t’ steer me wrong. It’s quite often a good thing that I’m not left to my own devices.

I want this to be more than a typical book review. I want this to be about opening up the process of choosing what to read, about growing as a reader and as a result growing as a writer. It’s not always about following the pack of readers; I’ve read some other Pulitzer Prize winners that I thought were stinkers. It’s not about following a mathematical pro and con formula; it’s about branching out from what you would normally read, trying something different and looking beyond what ever book you are reading is “about”.

I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay over a year ago and I’m still reaping the benefits of Michael Chabon’s gift of this book. I pledged to myself and to witnesses that 2010 would be the year I would begin writing fearlessly. This book has inspired me and keeps on inspiring me to do so.

I imagine Michael pitching this book and can hear his agent or publisher saying, “Huh-uh, limited appeal.” I think he wrote this book for himself. And with that thought, comes the realization that most of my best writing has come when I write for my self, not for an audience. When I get down to the dark and dirty side of life that needs me as a writer to expose the shadow side of life to the light, that’s when I’m really writing fearlessly.

And Michael Chabon can really write fearlessly. He made me fall in love with Sam Clay, Joe Kavalier and Rosa Saks because he made them human so his readers could identify with all the life choices that are put in front of them. He made them so real to me that when they were in danger, my heart raced and I held my breath. It doesn’t matter what the time, place and setting was, or what the book is “about”. What matters is we get to relive our own moments of pivotal decisions and sometimes disastrous mistakes, mistakes we may or may not recover from. I relived lessons learned, like why I chose to marry one person, but not another, why I let others take advantage of me and how I instinctively knew I had to make my own family of choice when my birth family let me down. Michael Chabon took his building blocks of words and constructed friendships, love and bonds that we all wish for in our own lives. And who doesn’t wish for a talent that we can earn our living with? He gives them all talent and money and an odd fame. And sometimes all of that is not enough, sometimes Everything is not enough. That is the glaring, heart-breaking beauty of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Rebekah Spivey

Check out Rebekah's Blog!