Sunday, November 27, 2011

Situations Matter by Sam Sommers

Sam Sommers, Psychology Professor from Tufts University, has written an interesting book about context that compares to books written by journalist Malcolm Gladwell.  If you liked Blink and The Tipping Point, you would enjoy Sommers' analysis of the importance of paying attention to the situational elements of life which can deeply affect how we understand ourselves, our relationships and our community.

Sommers' readable book combines personal anecdotes from his teaching life and family, stories from popular culture, and current psychological studies to illustrate interesting concepts about day to day problems.  My favorite chapter was called "You're not the person you thought you were" and discusses how our own self-perceptions are shaped daily--perhaps hourly--by the context in which we find ourselves.  He critiques the idea of the authentic self because the self we wish to be within our family might be different that the self we want to be at work and so on.  The self is ever a work in progress, and no self-help book on earth tries to explain that to us.

He does a good chapter on gender which I also enjoyed, but found it overlapped with some reading I had done on current gender trends by Peggy Orenstein in Cinderella ate my Daughter. The chapter on race described a lot of training I had many years ago when I worked as a student affairs administrator.  Those ideas were re-treads for me, but my own unique context might be different from another reader's. I loved the chapter on finding a mate and falling in love.  I also loved the chapter on why often many people witnessing a crime or distressing event fail to act.  We really aren't bad people.  Perhaps lazy, but not malicious.  He ends with several emails and anecdotes from former students who have taken his ideas and theories and used them in the wider world.  All the information felt really useful and practical for understanding common situations.

Much of his storytelling and thinking seemed to me, fresh and original.  I read several chapters of this book aloud to my husband as we drove to various destinations on the Thanksgiving holiday.  The stories and ideas prompted thoughtful conversation with one of the most interesting people I know.  (Wanted you to know my own context for enjoying this book.)  I highly recommend Situations Matter and would love to lend this early review to anyone who is interested.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

The most useful advice I have ever received as a writer, "One, don't wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing.  Two, once you begin keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it's going?"   These rules saved me half a careers worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town.  I'm not faster.  I spend less time not writing.
--Roger Ebert

I fell in love with Roger Ebert the writer after reading this much talked about article in Esquire Magazine last year.   I had always simply regarded him as that movie critic for the Sun-Times and on that TV show with the skinny guy, but Esquire made me consider him as a fine writer and an interesting man. When I heard of his memoir, released this year, I put myself on the list to check it out from the library.  I had to wait a few months to get it.

Roger Ebert has had a life many of us would envy. One observation he made of his life early in the book is that none of what happened to him, happened by design, or because he had some sort of plan.  All his major life turns were accidental.  In 1967, he was suddenly told by his editor that he was the new film critic, and he began reviewing movies and made a life out of it.  He was suddenly offered the gig reviewing movies for PBS which eventually was put on commercial TV, and thus he became a household name around the country when he sat down every week with Gene Siskel. In the last reinvention of himself, his editors at the Sun-Times requested he blog. He began to write on-line and discovered the wonder of having conversations with his fans and his movie community. It was a whole side to his career he never considered. I loved the idea that his fabulous life was entirely serendipitous. 

Roger Ebert then takes us along on the journey of his life as he meets and greets famous movie makers, actors and other famous writers.  He travels in London, South Africa, Venice and New York.  At times his book is poignant: stories about his childhood dog or his father's death or the sad tale of his love life under the thumb of his judgmental mother.  I was especially interested in his friendship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, I shed a tear over that chapter.  Many chapters are great behind the scenes tales of his life among the stars and directors.  If you want to know about Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese and what they were like as directors and subjects, this is a great read.  Toward the end his chapters are philosophical as he digests the last sad chapters of his life.  He is unable to eat or talk due to his cancer and many surgeries, so his abilities to read and write become more and more important to him.  He thinks of his own death and makes sense of God and religion.  I loved the whole memoir, and think it can serve as a great primer on how to write a memoir--focusing not so much on the linear passage of time, but more on the themes of our lives as we look back on a life well spent.

The book was at its best when Ebert looked deep into this past in the early chapters as a boy in Urbana, Illinois. I did not care as much for the gossipy chapters on movie stars, and I hope to God I can write as beautifully and cogently about my life when and if illness begins to run its course as Roger Ebert can.  If you are a movie fan or a fan of the memoir, this is a great choice.  I give it a thumbs up!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Books and 9/11

Shortly after 9/11, I began to wonder when the books about the disaster and the mentions of the day would begin to appear on bookshelves and in the movies.  Ten years outside of the horrific time, I think we can safely assume there is now a 9/11 canon.

Like many, I am interested in reading about the time, wishing to get inside the minds of people who witnessed and experienced the horror first hand.  When I read memoirs that take place over the span of time covering September 11, 2001, I eagerly read about what the author was doing.  One amazing thing about that day is that virtually everyone can tie themselves to other people via those moments and days.  We all know what we were doing simultaneously.

I heard Lauren Manning interviewed on NPR on September 11, 2011. Unmeasured Strength is her personal account of the horrible flames that engulfed her body in the lobby of the world trade center on the morning of 9/11, and the great strength and determination it took her to recover after the fire burned over 80 percent of her body.

Ms Manning had an insurmountable climb to make her way back to family and normalcy. Her face, back, legs, fingers and arms had to be grafted with new skin and devices and contraptions had to be constructed to keep her skin pliable so she would be able to move normally.  She had surgery after surgery on her hands and arms.  She had months and months of rehab and physical and occupational therapy.

When I think of this story, I think of her complete positive attitude.  She had to focus on living and recovery and the hard work of healing all while ignoring the stares and disabilities in order to be able to climb out of the very deep dark place that she found herself after the attacks.  Chapter after chapter focused on her unquenchable drive to heal and resume her life before the accident.

This is a fast read, easily available at the library, and if you are interested in the stories of the victims of 9/11, a satisfying read.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A book and a movie

Several years ago I read a fabulous travel memoir by Tim Moore, humorist and traveler. He wrote Travels with My Donkey, an account of his trek with a donkey named Shinto along the pilgrimage path from St. Jean Pied de Port in France through the Spanish Pyrenees to Santiago do Compostela near the coast of Spain.  I loved the tale and I became fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage. What do modern day pilgrims seek? Why do they walk 500 miles just to reach a church that is purported to hold the remains of one of Jesus's apostles?  It has been awhile since I read this, so the details are cloudy but I know he met fellow travelers, ruminated about the history of the pilgrimage and wrote about Spain and being companionable with a donkey for a few months.  I always wondered if it was something I could do.

Last week, I had the opportunity to see a fabulous new movie, The Way, that just came out which follows a man as he journeys on the camino to Santiago.  A fictitious story about Tom Avery (played by Martin Sheen) who travels to St Jean Pied de Port to retrieve his only child's body after he is killed on the trail in a freak accident.  Avery is filled with grief. He has an empty, lonely life and was far from understanding his now deceased son (played by Martin Sheen's real life son Emilio Estevez, who also made the movie).

In a bold move, Avery decides to pick up his son's backpack and gear and take the trek himself, in an attempt to honor his son and try to understand what he was trying to do with his life.  He takes along his son's remains and begins to scatter them along the path.  Of course Tom is sad, angry and alone, but he begins to meet other travelers, all who have their own path and their own reasons for trekking the camino.

Some might call it predictable and the movie might be a little long, but it was beautiful and gave me a chance to see what the pilgrimage might really look like. I did love watching crusty Tom Avery begin to melt away, dig through his layers of grief, and connect with his travel companions.  I love how travel thrusts unlike people together. You never choose your travel companions; they choose you. All the shots are filmed in Spain along the trail with a musical score that made me want to sing: a gorgeous and thought provoking film.

I began to wonder, would I ever have the opportunity to walk this trail?  I told my theater companion that when we retired we were going to take this walk together.  Perhaps get our kids to come and carry our packs?  Will you join me?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Soul to Soul by Deborah Masel

The writer tells us in the first few sentences that her book is a sad one: a woman's story as she accepts diagnosis and struggles with stage 4 metatastic breast cancer and wends her way through and often unkind and mixed-up health care system (Australian).  She requests that we not stop reading even though the journey is a hard one to bear, and it was this simple introduction which lured me in and kept me with it.  I felt that I had been chosen to bear witness to the depths of suffering of the human soul.

The memoir was most interesting early in the book when she is clearly ill and waiting for the doctor's diagnosis.  Her busy life barely lets her rest and it is hard for her to change gears and accept that she must stop and be sick for awhile.  Also in the early chapters of the book she goes back through her life and recounts various adventures she had as a young student and a young wife.  She recounts recent tales of being in Israel during the recent Lebanon war.  I found her method of storytelling, going back and forth and introducing us to her rich and varied life, interesting.  It kept me turning the pages.

The constant turning back to tell a story of and earlier version of herself made me hang in limbo about the Cancer it unfolded painfully, but slowly.

It lost a little steam in the last half when it was simply chapter after chapter of pain and suffering.  She had some epiphanies about accepting death and her journey with the Torah (she was an avid Torah scholar and teacher) always presented divine revelation, but the reading was not as compelling.  I felt that the recent chapters were too close to her.  Like she just had that treatment last month and was just now writing about it.  A writer always needs distance between herself and her subject. But then, it was sad to realize, that Deborah might not have much time to reflect.

The story ends with a craniotomy to remove some tumors from her brain and as far as I know Deborah is still alive in Australia teaching Torah and enjoying her family and her precious life.

I would recommend this to anyone who is struggling with life or death issues or who wants to read about the ups and downs of the medical establishment.

Please ask me if you would like to borrow my copy. This was an early review.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


It did not take me long to finish the third book in the trilogy.  Yes, I will say everything that every other reviewer and blogger has stated:  mesmerizing, riveting, horrifying, perfect ending, couldn't put it down and can't wait for that movie.  If you have made it this far--reading the first two--I don't know how you can not finish and not want to know what happens to Katniss and Peeta and Gale and Haymitch and Prim and the Capitol with their beloved Hunger Games.  I read this waiting in line, on breaks at work, and just about everywhere I could squeeze in a paragraph or two.

What is it about exceptional storytelling that leaves a reader so engrossed in a tale that she cannot forget it?  All I want to do is thinking about these characters and this story and all the themes and symbols and implications.  Moreover, I want to write a story as compelling and engrossing as this one.  How did Suzanne Collins do it?  When I read something like this I am humbled: always wanting more, wondering how to become this kind of supreme storyteller.

After a day or two it will fade.  Other stories and life itself will take over.  The tale will recede a bit, and eventually I will pick up other books to try and recreate this feeling.  I guess this is why I read and why I write, to create this feeling of ecstasy over finding other people, other worlds, other ideas.  I read to become absorbed in something other than myself, to learn about the world, to broaden my scope of understanding.

I really have to remind myself that I often stumble across inspiration and fabulous storytelling in the most unlikely of places.  Several good friends and avid readers had recommended these stories to me, and I waved them all off. The topic sounded too grisly:  children put in an arena to kill each other off!  Not my cup of tea. That is what has made this reading experience doubly good.  I did not expect to be so captivated by this tale.

Thanks Suzanne Collins.  Looking forward to your next adventure.