Monday, September 26, 2016

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Lately I feel a resistance in my life—who I was and who I am and who I am becoming—in conflict with one another. 

Who I was:  someone who openly shared herself online until she was cyber-bullied and even stalked, more than once, and even by people I knew in real life culminating in my words/experiences being used to attack my loved ones.  

Who I am:  someone who is scared of being online, who defines this past experience as traumatizing, and who balked when her husband handed her a stack of college ruled notebooks and said “You can write until your hand falls off or you run out of ink, whichever comes first” because she stopped writing years ago. 

Who I am becoming:  a woman who has a story and wants to share it, if not with the world, at least with her granddaughter. 

Who I am becoming would have to be vulnerable enough to release the trauma (and I am not using this word lightly) of the past.   This, and listening to my mother talk about herself in hurtful and hateful ways, led me to ask the people I know online if they know of any resources I could share.  One author’s name came up more than once and I would have started with her, immediately, but her book was unavailable at my public library and I had to wait to read it so I read another book in the meantime.

The Gifts of Imperfection:  Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown is not a self-help, per se.  The author is a researcher who has, in the past, focused on shame and how it informs our lives, creating disconnections within our true selves and our communities.  This book builds on that research to explore how we can create those connections that shame breaks.

The author provides stories from her own life, while also exploring the results of the many stories she used to create her theory of how to live a wholehearted life.  (At the end of the book, she explains her methodology-Grounded Theory.)   From her own experience, balanced with the data she gathered to support her theories, she invites the reader to be vulnerable and then offers ten “Guideposts” without simplifying things into a checklist.  You won’t close this book and tick off items and be done done done.  No “do this” and you’ll be happy.  Instead, she suggests that these Guideposts are not goals but practices. 

How?  Well, this is where the reader will have to find their own way to practice the deceptively simple concepts of living authentically, having self-compassion, developing a resilient spirit, etc.  Now, she does come from a position of our being body/mind/spirit so there are allusions to a spiritual component to some of these things but she doesn’t define this spirituality specifically, although she herself clearly believes in God.  Nor does she get overly New Age feel good warm-fuzzy.  (In fact she suggests at one point that she dislikes how some spiritual teaches are dismissive of painful experiences.) 

This is a book that I would love to read along with others.  I found myself thinking about people with whom I would like to share this book—friends and family.  In fact, my whole reason for wanting to read this book is that I wanted to find a resource I could share with my mother, who is not kind to herself.  I wanted to find a resource I could share with her because I don’t want to carry this self-abuse into my own life.  This book comes close to what I wanted to find.  Is it a perfect fit?  Is there a perfect fit?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I want to read more books by Brené Brown because her message resonates with me.  I copied quite a few quotes that I will share in my personal and professional life.   

Pet Peeve Alert:  The author erroneously shares a Mark Twain quote that is clearly not a quote from Twain.  Anyone who has read Twain would recognize that the tone of the quote is simply not right.  I know this seems petty (and no doubt other readers have confronted her with this already) but I find it annoying when writers and their editors and their publishers do not take the time to do a simple google search to verify a quote before sharing it. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Art of Imperfection by Véronique Vienne

The Art of Imperfection:  Simple Ways to Make Peace with Yourself by Véronique Vienne is a very short book that encourages the reader to embrace the imperfections of life.  Meant to be inspiring, I found it rather banal.  At times, I couldn’t even agree with the advice.  When the author advises the reader to not pay off credit card debt if there’s ever a jackpot win at Las Vegas.  

I get it.  The idea is to encourage the reader to not always be responsible.  Okay fine. Don’t pay off all of your debt when/if you get a fiscal windfall because there should be room for a little self-indulgence and fun, especially when you've lived most of your life always being careful.  But she occasionally suggests other ideas that are more silly than inspired.  And yes, I agree with the author that there is room for silliness in our lives, which explains why there’s a whole chapter to silliness I suppose.  It's that her idea of what to celebrate and how to live life fully while embracing the imperfections that surround us is just . . . well, mostly silly.

Throughout the book, the author alludes to research but there are no sources cited so it’s hard to even take her advice that’s rooted in scientific evidence seriously.  It all just read like so much fluff, although I did find some quotes that could lead to more interesting ideas.  It’s easy to write about deep ideas, water them down, and then end up with a few sound bites. (After all, isn’t this the foundation of politics and the news media? But I digress.)

I wanted to like this book more; it just never felt like it elevated its ideas beyond superficial fluff.  The photographs by Erica Lennard throughout the book are lovely.  In fact, I think I would have found more inspiration from simply seeing a collection of the photographer’s work without the text.  But I suspect some people find this book inspiring even without the photos.  I obviously did not.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Yellow House by Martin Gayford

When we went to Amsterdam last year, I confess I was not driven to see Van Gogh’s paintings.  Although I had the Van Gogh museum on our itinerary, I was far more interested in going to The Hague and Van Gogh was relegated to “If we have time” Plan B.  But Rob was so sick and I didn’t want to go too far from our hotel.  I took a morning to go to the Rijksmuseum (which truly needs more than a single morning to be fully appreciated) and saw some Van Gogh paintings I’d only seen in books and I was hooked!  The next day I went to the Van Gogh museum for the morning.

I’m so glad I did.  It was well worth the trip and I walked out madly in love with Van Gogh’s work.  A few weeks later, back in my own living room (and country, for that matter), I watched the Kirk Douglas film Lust for Life.  Not that I expected historical accuracy from a Hollywood biopic based on a novel by Irving Stone.  I think the movie is interesting in that they intersperse the narrative arch with pauses featuring Van Gogh’s artwork.  I imagine that, for some (perhaps many?), this movie served as an introduction to the artist’s life and life’s work.  It fueled my personal curiosity to know more about the man. 

Which is why I wanted to read The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford.  The author has done an excellent job of researching a specific period of time in these artist’s lives, giving just enough backstory to provide a context for the events that lead to the notorious moment of Van Gogh’s life—the cutting off of his ear, or part thereof.  Gaugin comes off as selfish, narcissistic, and not especially sympathetic.  But, in his defense, he was dealing with a man who was, himself, unstable.  The author suggests Van Gogh suffered from bipolar disorder, which certainly explains some of his behavior.  Nonetheless, he was appreciated by his peers and his family members believed in his talent.  Van Gogh’s passion, his constant push to perfect his craft, are effectively communicated through the pages of this book.  There are some photos included but I still found myself making note of some of the artwork mentioned but not included in the photos so I could better appreciate the many details Gayford includes.   For anyone curious to know more about Van Gogh and/or Gaugin, this book is one I would highly recommend. 

I made this cross stitch for my mother.
This is the back, because my mother always looks at the back.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

When we were in London last year, as I was meandering around the airport when I saw a new-to-me book by Jeanette Winterson:  The Gap of Time.  When I came home, I had to wait because the American edition was slower to reach here.  When I finally read it, I devoured it.  I was fascinated by Winterson’s reinterpretation of The Winter’sTale.  Then I had a chance to read Shylock is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice.  Both retellings were immediately compelling reads, fascinating in how they modernize the stories, and was especially intrigued by Jacobson’s ability to make Shylock a sympathetic character, something which is too often not attempted.

So naturally I wanted to read Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, an author whose writing always compelled me to read just-on-more-chapter before bed. I had devoured, and highly recommended, Atwood so many times, I just knew this novel would blow me away.  Which is why I was surprised to find myself struggling to care for Felix Phillips, the protagonist of Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest.  I often went a day or two without even opening the book, not really caring about Felix’s self-exile after he is forcefully removed from his position as director of a festival where he often leads productions about Shakespeare.  The fact that Felix, who has lost his only child, is preparing a production that will, in some way, heal the wounds of loss he’s suffering adds some pathos but I didn’t care.

The novel is structured in five parts, much as a Shakespearean play is divided into five acts.  For me, the novel didn’t take root until Felix finds himself working in a prison, training the prisoners in theater production, from acting to video editing.  It is possible that part of the reason this is where I became more engaged with the novel is that I expected the author, who is known for her nearly prescient nightmare visions of futures that seem far to real and realized, would address the understandable concerns regarding privatization of prisons, prisoner recidivism, and such within the overarching focus of revenge and redemption.

In other words, I wanted to love this novel and had expectations for it based on a familiarity with Atwood’s illimitable talent and yet, even when I felt more involved with the story, I never truly cared for anyone.  I didn’t care about Felix or his need for revenge.  I didn’t care about the prisoners or their production.  I just didn’t care.  And one thing I can say with confidence is that, even when Shakespeare told a story that didn’t immediately engage me, at least I cared about the characters.  So this novel, although well written and masterfully crafted, left me disappointed.  

I recommend Atwood's The Blind Assassin which, although I found it somewhat predictable, I definitely enjoyed.  I also "enjoyed" The Handmaid's Tale, a disturbing novel.  Although I didn't like it quite as much, I would also say that if you like dystopian novels, there's The Heart Goes Last.  I also recommend The Edible Woman which I read over 30 years ago and can still recall with some clarity.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I didn’t grow up with a television and too far north to be affected by the SEC and college football.  I just never understood the appeal, even when my mother started becoming a fan.  Then I met a man who loves the sport and I promised him that I would give football a try.  For two years I followed the sport, was sitting in front of the television on Sundays, even chose my favorite team.  I studied the game, learned the rules, rooted for my team all the way to the Super Bowl the first year.  The following year, even though my team didn’t go all the way, I was able to root for the Giants.  I am from New York, after all, so why not?

Then, after two years, Rob said it is okay for me not to watch anymore because I simply wasn’t enjoying the game.  I would get very distressed any time I saw one of the players get hurt.  Rob would reassure me by pointing out when a hurt player returned to the field and tried to do the same when they did not, when an injury would keep them from playing for a week or more.  We argued about these things.  He would say they get paid a lot of money.  I’d argue that these young men could not understand the risks of what they were doing.  He would say they know they can get hurt.  I would insist that kids in high school and college think they are invincible, that “it” can’t happen to them. 

We never did reach a détente and I just ignore the game now altogether.  And after reading this book, I’ll have to really bite my tongue.  Here is the review I shared on amazon.

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas looks at the work of Dr Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who took the commonly understood idea of boxing’s “punch drunk” into other fields of full-contact sports, the National Football League, in particular.  His discovery of what he called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) continues to have repercussions in sports. 

After writing an article for GQ magazine, Laskas was encouraged to write a book length version of her exposé.  There are times when her book reads more like journalism than narrative nonfiction.  There are, however, other times when the author humanizes her story.  She does start the book in media res with Dr Omalu appearing as a witness in court, testifying against his former mentor, before backtracking to the doctor’s childhood in Nigeria, education, and how he ended up in America, studying the brains of corpses.  While this is a dramatic way to start the book, Dr Wecht’s appearance in court has nothing to do with Omalu’s research or the NFL.  But you don’t find that out until the twelfth chapter.

Of course, by then the reader is invested in Omalu’s story.  For me, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the Big Business of the NFL and the ways they manipulated the public, using their tax-exempt millions to control research, and gradually admitting Omalu more and more.  His struggles with depression and desire to not merely discover the truth but to disseminate it, ensuring that those who need to know will know the truth and full implications of what he has discovered.  He is both humble and determined, willing to take a back seat and let others speak out. 

For all the occasions when Laskas' journalism style distance the reader from the events on the page, there are moments that are emotionally surprising, especially the final chapter which serves as the perfect denouement to a fascinating story. I would love to believe that football fans would read this book and invest their time and energy into other less brutal forms of entertainment.  I’d love to believe parents would find the slim chance at fame is not worth the physical risk to their children.  I’d love to believe that this book, which will soon be a movie, would make a significant difference. Maybe it didn’t change my opinion of football but maybe it will change someone’s opinion.  I have to believe that even small ripples of change will have larger, far-reaching effects.  Effects that will result in people redefining what they define as entertaining and not merely in new developments in protective sports gear.

I really wish this book and the movie will make people rethink how much they love this so-called sport.  Will Smith plays Dr Bennet Omalu. Certainly that will inspire more people to go see the movie and maybe learn from it.  Unfortunately, I suspect that most football fans will not care because they don’t want to spoil their fun.  After all, who cares if young men are being hurt, possibly irremediably?   After all, if we can’t waste hours staring at the television, cheering on strangers to win the game at any cost, every Sunday . . . and Monday night . . . and Thursday night, whatever will we do with ourselves and our time?

What did I do when I stopped watching football?  I spent my Sundays reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, and eating some wonderful meals.  And waiting for the season to be over so my husband and I could get back to watching movies together.

You will find an interview with Dr Bennet Omalu here.
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