Tuesday, December 30, 2014

When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult TimesWhen Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short collection of essays edited from live talks is paradigm-shifting. Chödrön takes the traditional ideas about loss and mourning and turns them sideways, asking the reader to think very differently about life transitions.

Although there is some Sanskrit in the text referring to certain Buddhist concepts, it's all very accessible to the Western mind unfamiliar with this way of thinking. Instead of giving permission to feel sorry for ourselves (which every single one of the other books on grief seem to be based upon), Chödrön instead reminds us that suffering is the bedrock of the human condition. It's to be expected, borne, learned from, and integrated into our experience. In short, this is the most healthy, most helpful, most logical and truthful take I've read on how to face loss and grief. When I read and thought about the simple concepts she lays out, I felt like a bag of rocks had been taken from me.

I recommend this book above all others if you've found little helpful in traditional ideas about loss, as I have. Beyond the philosophy, she offers tools for getting re-centered and back into life again. I read this book after a profound loss, but its ideas are helpful for your life's toolbox to have ready when it happens to you. It doesn't take long to read, but it takes a lifetime to contemplate.

"When we are training in the art of peace, we are not given any promises that, because of our noble intentions, everything will be ok. In fact, there are no promises of fruition at all. Instead, we are encouraged to simply look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness".

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Relato de un náufrago, by Gabriel García Márquez

The Story of a Shipwrecked SailorThe Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it was published as a magazine series in 1955, the truth of the Caldas' accident ran counter to the official government report, and Gabriel García Márquez left Colombia to preserve his own safety. The official story was that a storm caused the vessel to partially capsize, sweeping six sailors overboard, with five drowning. The truth was that the day was clear, and the boat was overloaded with contraband as gifts to family and perhaps to sell on the Colombian black market, and a strong series of waves knocked the boat out of balance.

Velasco became a folk hero for surviving ten days at sea in an unequipped life raft. The book details each day at sea; the long nights, the sharks circling the boat, the tremendous hunger and thirst, and the internal battle to keep overcoming the urge to let himself die aboard the raft. When he finally sees land, he is so dehydrated and exhausted that it takes hours for him to believe that it isn't another hallucination. He describes his rescue by coastal peasants and his immediate rise to fame in his home country.

I read this book in Spanish and found it absolutely fascinating-- Márquez is able to describe the sameness and boredom of ten days at sea with his storyteller's flourish, and the book never drags. He wrote this before he was a well-known author, and even though it was ghostwritten for the sailor, it has lines of his future greatness within. The vocabulary was typically demanding, and I certainly expanded my knowledge of seafaring terminology in reading this short book.

If you can read it in the original Spanish, it's worth the trouble. I've read some of his short stories and feel like I could take on one of his novels now-- there is nothing like reading a book with the original nuances of language, and Márquez is truly an artist with words.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Flapper, by Joshua Zeitz

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America ModernFlapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Flapper" takes the reader through the post-WWI decade that saw America's youth discard the values that brought their elders into war, and instead embarked on a self-indulgent party where the stock market and hemlines soared. It was a decade of extremes: Prohibition, automobiles, women voting, advertising taking hold-- a tremendous time of social change that made America far more recognizable to today's readers than the time which preceded it.

Zeitz, a historian, sets the historical table nicely by introducing us to the generation just above the youth of the 1920s. The contrast between Victorian/Edwardian values and the life of the flapper could not have been more extreme, and he does an excellent job of enumerating the differences, even to the point of quoting desperate parents who had lost control of teenage children to fast cars, bathtub gin, and casual sex. This generation of youth were called "Moderns" in their own time, and indeed, their parents' reaction to their exploits seems quite modern even in 2014. Zeitz also does a fine job of detailing the societal influences that led to this new freedom: the availability and privacy of cars, the liberation of women with voting parity, and the almost-open invitation to imbibe the forbidden fruit of alcohol when it was legally prohibited.

The only issue I have with this book is that Zeitz relies almost entirely on celebrities to describe 1920s culture. He devotes chapters to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Coco Chanel, Lois Long, and various movie stars. Celebrity culture is much different than how the other millions of Americans lived, and apart from a few quotes out of a Muncie, Indiana newspaper, he illustrates the details of the decade with celebrities. These celebrities tended to great extremes: Louise Brooks of movie fame, for example, was wilder than Lindsey Lohan at her worst, and the Fitzgeralds suffered from mental illness and alcoholism even at their best. I would have preferred a balance of regular folk to describe the reality of those years.

It's still compelling reading. The Fitzgeralds, Chanel, and the movie stars were no strangers, but I hadn't read about Lois Long previously, so I found her story interesting-- she was a magazine culture writer using a pseudonym in those years. If you have interest in the social climate of the 1920s or wonder how things got as wild as they did in those years, Zeitz explains it well. It doesn't have a happy ending, but in that, it gives one pause to consider moderation in all things.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wyner

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget ItFluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who has been trickling some Spanish into most days for the past few years, this book was an interesting take on a different approach that might move things along a little faster. Based on the neuroscientific principle that we learn better when we can attach an idea to an image, Wyner's technique has the learner making hundreds of flash cards, each with a unique image to tie the word or idea to that picture, in order to firmly plant it in the memory.

This book is more of a companion to his website, fluent-forever.com, which offers free and paid resources for learning any language. Because he's successfully learned six languages in order to work in opera, I have no doubt that his techniques work well to move from beginner to fluency-- the speed depends on the learner and the amount of time one is willing to devote to language acquisition.

The drawbacks: it will take hours of work for someone to create the number of flashcards with the amount of detail to make each one a real memory tool. He describes a way to do this on the computer and export the cards to your smartphone; the key is to use unique images that trigger your own memories: for example, the word "mother" would have a picture of your own mother, "car" your own car, etc. This eliminates the need for English, because his idea is teaching the brain to think in the target language rather than translate. There is also a heavy reliance on technology for learning. If someone reading the book is not comfortable with technology, this will not be a helpful resource. He promotes his technique as the very best way, but people have been learning other languages for millenia-- there are other ways that work; this one may for some people and not for others.

It's worth reading if you're a tech savant willing to put in the time to set up the system for yourself. There is much more on the website than the book, which makes the book more of a marketing tool for the website than a stand-alone resource. I haven't quite gotten used to that 21st century aspect of the printed word, but there it is. Have a look if you're struggling with foreign languages, but you might be happier looking at the website first and deciding for yourself if the system is right for you.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Another Path, by Gladys Taber

Another PathAnother Path by Gladys Taber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gladys Taber was born in 1899, roughly the same year as my great-grandmother. I read her columns toward the end of her career in a magazine my mother received, back when I was a child in the 1970s. I remember her sensible yet sensitive tone, and how she was in step with nature, the seasons, and the quiet of home. In her case, the home was Stillmmeadow, a 1690 farmhouse she shared with her companion Jill; both stayed on after husbands died or divorced and raised their children together.

Another Path is her memoir of going through the aftermath of Jill's sudden death. She describes leaving the hospital in bright sunshine, feeling stunned that life around her carries on, overwhelmed with the paperwork, exhausted after doing even the smallest of tasks. In short, she eloquently wrote of my experience last month after my mother died suddenly-- her experience and mine were so similar that it was an enormous relief to know that I wasn't going crazy; that all the strange reactions were within the normal range of sudden grief.

Her remedies have helped me, too. She advises going outside and spending time in the normalcy and beauty of nature, to appreciate the order, the chaos, and the cyclical nature of the world. She also advises to resist the urge to isolate oneself, and instead to strengthen friendships and form new ones. I've found both of these to be tremendously helpful in easing the pain of loss. It doesn't make the grief go away-- nothing can do that-- but it puts the grief into perspective so that it doesn't take over one's whole being.

This book has been long out of print, but if you can find a copy, it is a touching tribute to her companion as well as a very comforting short read after experiencing a life-changing death. One of my favorite quotes: When you walk a dark path, it is a good thing to know there are footprints on the soggy turf. Someone walked this way before, and you, in turn, leave footprints for another who will soon stumble this very way. At times, someone may be close enough to reach out a hand and say, "There's a bad spot here."

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son, by Willard Sterne Randall

A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His SonA Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin and His Son by Willard Sterne Randall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A Little Revenge" is the polar opposite of a hagiography. Randall's carefully researched biography on the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and his illegitimate son William serves to pull yet another founding father from his exalted pedestal and examine him in the cold light of his own actions.

William was the product of one of the many Parisian affairs of Benjamin's youth; in order to make the best of things, Benjamin provided for the impoverished young woman and saw that the boy received an education. On meeting him midway through his childhood, he took a liking to the bright young man and accelerated his efforts to transform an embarrassing reality into a respectable young gentleman: William was educated at affordable yet challenging schools and eventually passed the English equvalent of the bar, becoming a respected attorney in England and then America.

His early education in England left him with an affinity and loyalty for the country which stood in direct opposition to his father's American patriotism, and the book focuses on the schism that developed in the gathering years of the American revolution. William rose to the position of Colonial Governor of New Jersey under King George while his father was the patriarch of the revolutionary movement. We all know which side won, and Randall's writing is very sympathetic to the hardships faced by Loyalists who were eventually forced to emigrate back to England in order to avoid persecution or murder by their former neighbors or even their own families. William was among this number.

While the elder Franklin was indisputably a venerable statesman and diplomat, he conducted his personal life in a way that few will find palatable. He ignored his common-law wife in favor of another family he lived with in Paris, neglected his daughter, was indifferent to his son until he saw personal gain in raising him to respectability, and put political gain before family to the point where his son nearly died in Tory prison while Benjamin reveled in the luxury of Paris.

If colonial and revolutionary America interest you, this is an eye-opening read on the complexities of one of its key characters. Certainly no one is perfect, but one might be hard-pressed to find a founding father more flawed than Benjamin Franklin.

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