Hodge Podge: The Danish Thing

This week’s literary trail mix flavor is That Whole Danish Thing. It’s everywhere. One of the book clubs I’m in did a Danish theme this month (it was very hyggelig), so I read a couple of things.

  • The Year of Living Danishly – This is the book club selection, and it made for a lively discussion. The author did a great job of discussing various aspects of Danish culture that impact overall happiness. Although her attempts at application were not very helpful, it was easy to think of individual ways you might want (or not) to put the ideas into place in your own life. I will say that the things that struck me most are things that would require cultural overhaul and are thus not likely to ever be present in my life. But I’m still thinking about several things:
    • Danish society has a strong framework of shared traditions and rules. You’d think this would be stifling, but it really gives them freedom in their lane, versus American individualism, which leads to a lot of ambiguity and stress as we’re spoiled for choice on every front.
    • The taxes are high, but shockingly not THAT much higher than what I pay as a self-employed person (in the US if you are self-employed you pay an additional 15% on top of your regular tax bracket). And because Danish taxes and benefits are straightforward, there is a lot less stress and uncertainty involved.
    • Danish people trust each other. They leave babies in strollers outside of restaurants and shops. That sort of thing would send you to jail here. But I think trust also diminishes stress.
  • The Danish Way of Parenting – This book is a little gimmicky and heavily geared toward raising younger kids. I didn’t find much about older elementary or teenaged kids, but that’s ok. One of the premises of the book is that parenting is an ethnotheory–that is, we parent very differently based on our culture, and it’s hard to see our own bias objectively. Again, the take-away is that Danish people are not as individualistic as Americans. “They don’t enjoy drama, negativity, and divisiveness.” And that really sums up the difference, doesn’t it? Although I don’t think this book is a must-read, if you’re interested in the topic it did have some interesting insights, and perhaps more that you could implement in your own family even if you are unable to change your culture single-handedly.
  • Overwhelmed – Linked to my longer review, this book has a great section on Denmark and what makes it’s work-life balance so much easier. It would be a great companion read for the topic, plus it’s an excellent book on its own.

A few other links a ran across recently:

Have you read/thought much about the Danish trend? What do you think?

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Underground Airlines

underground airlinesThis week I read a book that smacked me in the face unexpectedly.

The premise of Underground Airlines is incredibly strong: imagine the present day, complete with modern technology, industry, and trade, but if the American Civil War never happened and slavery was never outlawed in the South. And then imagine an intricately plotted, deeply felt, tautly designed novel about that world.

Of course I wanted to read Underground Airlines for the story, and I know you’d like it for that, too. But I was not prepared for how well Ben Winters, the author, brought the issues home in a way that caused me to think carefully, and perhaps uncomfortably, about my own world.

The book is set in Indianapolis, which happens to be the city in which I live, so that already felt personal. So many things are right on and familiar about the world Winters imagines, and then Winters drops in a grim and startling facet of slavery that jars you in its incongruity. It’s not just the slavery (made infinitely more sickening by it’s modern setting–truly, this is an important narrative to read–history makes slavery feel remote and like maybe there were fringes that weren’t that bad but truly, really, evil is evil all the way down) of the “Hard Four” Southern states that still allow slavery, but the soft racism of the North (this is definitely a thing in our own world–and something that surprised me about living in the North), the deliberate, callous ignorance of people who’d rather save a few dollars on a t-shirt than buy one that was ethically sourced, the smug superiority of freedom activists who still don’t actually care enough about people as people, even as they spout platitudes about injustice.

Underground Airlines would make an excellent book club selection. It’s a fantastic story–fast-paced, full of action and nuanced characters, and a complex mystery that only unravels at the very end. But it’s also a tremendously challenging book from an ethical perspective. We still have slavery in our world (Cheap t-shirts? Cheap coffee? Cheap chocolate? Yes, we’re implicated.), and we still have people who are convinced they are more of a person than someone a different color, nation, or gestational age than they are. And those of us who do care almost certainly aren’t doing enough about it. I don’t even pray about it very often. A riveting, thought-provoking, convicting story. I think you should read this one.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How can we let him live? A man like this?”

“A man like this?” I said softly. “What’re you? What’re you?”

Note: If you’re interested in the topic of modern day slavery, I highly recommend Gary Haugen’s book, The Locust EffectIt’s a difficult read, but a crucial topic.

 

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Hodge-podge: Books for Kids and Adults

This weekend, I surveyed the double layer of books on my To Read shelf and elected to thin the herd. It felt great to lift some of that pressure, self-inflicted though it is! Although I’m preferring the topical round-up style reviews lately, I thought I’d throw out a hodge-podge in case it helps anyone clear out an overfull shelf, or gives some ideas for kids books to add to your audio queue for upcoming over-the-river-and-through-the-woods jaunts.

First, a few kids books of note:

Alice In WonderlandAlice in WonderlandThis classic is probably worth owning in print if you don’t already, and it’s also quite inexpensive on Audible. We listened to the audio version through our library’s Overdrive app and enjoyed it. It’s a great mix of silly and bizarre and rhymy so it works for all ages. It’s also a lot shorter than I remember.

The Island of Dr. LibrisThe Island of Dr. LibrisI expected to like this book more than I did, given the premise of kids encountering book characters coming to life. But often I just wondered, why these books? Why these characters? Some seemed normal for kids, while others seemed needlessly linked to grown-up books, so it’s not like the kids who read Dr. Libris would then go out and read the adult books. It just could have been better. It was fine as an audio book for the car, but nothing extraordinary.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid LindgrenPippi Longstocking – Although it’s obviously a classic, do yourself a favor and get your kids the paper version rather than subjecting yourselves to the audio book. From a parent’s perspective, Pippi is just so annoying. I could not wait for the book to be over. It’s a little odd, since I remember liking the book as a kid, and my own kids have read and liked the book. I guess it’s just one of those things, like how adults read Little House in the Big Woods and can’t get over how much work Ma had to do, when kids are only thinking about wanting a pig bladder balloon. Anyway.

Stone-Fox-John-GardinerStone FoxThis short book packs in a great story of adventure and sacrifice, with some good topics for conversation. It also has a shocking ending (at least it was shocking to us) so be forewarned. It was a great audio book to listen to, but would be a good one to own as well.

 

mrs_piggle_wiggles-farmMrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm – You really can’t go wrong with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. We’ve enjoyed all of the series (at least the ones we’ve found so far) both in audio and paper versions. This volume is no exception to the pattern: kids with bad habits or character issues are taken to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who gives them some natural consequences or otherwise helps them to figure out how to change their habit. I like the emphasis on the child having to do the work to change, but the adult being there to help.

Now, on to the books for grown-ups:

nature-anatomy-coverNature Anatomy – We used this book as a read-aloud for nature study, but I thought it could just as easily be something an adult would want to pick up to peruse. The author did a lovely job of hand-drawing bits of nature from rocks to birds, animals to plants, and then hand-lettered in interesting facts and scientific names, with some typeset information and grouping by category. This is what a nature notebook could look like if you were an artist and naturalist for real. We found it inspiring and quite informative.

strong-and-weak-andy-crouchStrong and Weak – I wanted to like this book more since I did really enjoy the author’s previous book, Culture Making, and named it as one of my favorites from 2009. But this one just didn’t really stand out for me. It was fine, but I didn’t come away from it feeling particularly challenged or inspired or with new ideas about flourishing. I think your response might depend on how much culture-shaping type literature you’ve read.

becoming-brilliantBecoming Brilliant – Having received an advance copy of this book, I was somewhat sad to find that I’m really not the target audience and I honestly didn’t enjoy the book. For one thing, I felt that the authors’ views on issues like giftedness, the point of education, and educational methods ran counter to what I have read, researched, and experienced, both as a student and as a teacher. For another, the information is presented in fairly dry book report fashion rather than as dynamic new ideas, and I’ve read most of the information in other sources before. Not all of the ideas were really all that supported by research (for example, the actual outcomes from learning via screens). The good ideas also tend to be geared toward classroom teachers, rather than towards parents or homeschoolers–involved parents and homeschoolers are almost certainly already doing the things the authors describe to ensure their kids develop well. In thinking about who should read this book, I decided that it would be good for policymakers in government who have no background in educational issues, but who find themselves needing to get up to speed fast. If that’s not you, skip this one.

games-for-writingGames for Writing – I have a child who is a reluctant writer. It’s not that said child CAN’T write, because said child enjoys attempting intricate calligraphy and keeping notebooks full of random facts about various topics. However, said child LOATHES writing assignments. I have tried Oh So Many Things. What is working for now is reminding myself to take a deep breath because this is only elementary school and there are plenty of years in which to tackle the sort of writing required in college. Meanwhile, I’ve been using many of the writing prompt ideas from Brave Writer, and also several I found in this little book.Games for Writing is geared toward early elementary, but I’ve been beefing it up a little bit so that I can use it with all of my big kids (2nd, 4th, and 5th grades) together. In general, I still think the copywork to written narration to analytical essay path is correct, but sometimes it does help to get there via a meandering path rather than a straight blaze. If you’re in the same boat, maybe this will help.

What’s been in your hodge-podge lately? Have you cleared anything of note (good or bad!) from your To Read shelf lately?

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Pros and cons of reading books about books

Pros & cons of reading books about books

Perhaps, like me, your childhood experience with books about books leaves you cold to the idea. In general, and even (perhaps especially) for children, I prefer to read the actual thing. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule.

Truly great books are part of a conversation about ideas, so in order to be worthwhile, a book about a book can’t be didactic–it has to draw you into the conversation in a deeper or more accessible way.

And that can be a great experience. Here’s one example (followed by some tips):

This summer I purposed to read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor presents important insights and cultural analysis, but this work of philosophy clocks in at 896 pages and if you aren’t used to reading the genre you might get bogged down. I love reading philosophy, and greatly enjoyed the book, but even so it’s length made it difficult for me to keep track of all of the threads of the argument.

And so I was delighted to find that James K. A. Smith wrote a book based on a class he teaches on A Secular Age. So it’s a book about a book, but in the best possible way. Smith’s book, How (Not) to be Secular, engages with Taylor’s work in a succinct but comprehensive way. Smith brings his own (slightly different) perspective to the work and ties the arguments a little more closely to applications from our current cultural moment.

So, how do you know if it’s worth your time to read a book about a book? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Can you read the books together? I’d generally avoid a summary or a book that attempts to replace the original with a watered-down version. However, if you can read the two together (as I did with Taylor’s and Smith’s books) and it forms more of a conversation, that’s a great thing.
  • Does reading the second book enrich your experience or understanding? Well-done books about books help you read more deeply and interact with original ideas more completely.
  • Is the second book a must-read on its own merit? In my example above, Smith added enough of his own spin and insight to make his book able to stand on its own. So while I’d wholeheartedly recommend both of the books I mentioned if you are interested in philosophy, history, or culture, I also think that for those who don’t have time for Taylor’s monumental tomeSmith’s book would still be a worthwhile read that would expose you to Taylor’s ideas and pull you into the conversation.

What do you think about books about books? (And is there a better way of saying that phrase without resorting to so much repetition?!) I’d love to hear your thoughts.
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Ordering the rhythms of our tables, calendars, and hearts

a-spirited-mind-1We live in a time in which we are fortunate to have lots of options. You can eat strawberries in November and wear sweaters in July. From where we live to how we eat, even to how we observe or ignore the weather, we pretty much get to chart our own course.

Because we have this freedom, it’s even more important that we pay attention to the underlying framework that drives our choices. I’ve recently been reading and thinking about this in light of seasons and rhythms.

I’m not against the convenience of modern life. I’m writing this post in my air conditioned office while it’s 94 degrees outside. I’ll be putting a can of tomatoes in tonight’s dinner, and I buy everything from books to pajamas to eyeliner on Amazon. But I do see a difference between using modern conveniences as tools and being blindly co-opted by our consumer culture.

As I read I began articulating some impressions of unease I’ve had about how (or if) my life reflects my beliefs on a number of fronts. I’ve made some steps to change our rhythms with things like moving to a term schedule for school (generally six weeks on, one week off), and we’ve always done a Jesse Tree for Advent. Still, in reading thinkers like James K. A. Smith and others, I’ve found myself examining our life looking for the liturgy embedded therein–we all live a liturgy, Smith says, it’s just a matter of what we base it on.

circle of seasonsIn a roundabout fashion this brought me to Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s excellent book The Circle of Seasons. Ireton didn’t grow up in a high church tradition, so her study of the church year as an adult gives her a valuable outsider perspective. Ireton avoids the temptation to create or uphold empty ritual, and digs into the value and symbolism of various church traditions.

For example, in looking at Advent as a season of waiting and preparation for Christ’s birth followed by a twelve day feast of Christmas, Ireton ties in ways Christians can move beyond the commercial Christmas to enjoy a season of peace and then extend joy and love when everyone else is tapped out and suffering a post-holiday slump. What if we had a Christmas party the week after Christmas? What if we invited people over for a Christmas dinner on December 28? How would that impact our family’s ability to enjoy Christmas and be a blessing to others?

Likewise, Lent offers a chance to think about the true purpose of fasting–not self-denial or being absorbed in yourself, but creating space for God to work in and through us.

I appreciated how Ireton thoughtfully examined ways that the church calendar can break us out of our tendency to passively trudge through life, and make us more mindful of our days.

irrational seasonI’ve already mentioned The Irrational Season, but it bears repeating here because in the book Madeleine L’Engle writes her reflections on the year in a way that is informed by and immersed in the church year.

L’Engle did a masterful job of showing how being aware of the church calendar can direct our thoughts and contemplation. Thinking about Jesus’ coming birth during Advent leads to being watchful for His return. Considering the events of our lives in light of Epiphany, Easter, or the Trinity helps us to understand them in a truer light, and orient our own experiences in light of a bigger story.

Reading The Irrational Season won’t be so much a practical primer on how to celebrate the church year as an inspiration for how being aware of seasons and traditions can be a rich avenue for study and contemplation. I’m thinking about this a lot as I structure our school terms for next year.

feastOne of the e-books in a bundle I bought recently turned out to be an interesting resource on the Christian year. Feast! is full of practical tips and recipes for aligning your family culture with church culture.

The first two sections–on Advent and Christmas–were particularly helpful. I liked the ideas for ways to build up to Christmas and make that our focus, but without seeming Scroogey or anti-Christmas. A lot of the tips were ideas that would help to keep December less frantic by spreading out all the things we love about the season into a longer and more relaxed celebration. I’ve always felt that Christmas was this weird abrupt stop after a couple of weeks trying to cram too much in. I really like the idea of a more restful Advent and then a great fun long Christmas with plenty of time to listen to music, make gingerbread houses, and read Christmas books rather than putting everything away. The authors suggest adding to your Jesse Tree until Epiphany, which I remember my mom trying to do for us some years. The Stewarts suggest adding the names of God or attributes of Jesus for those extra twelve ornaments. I have this on my list to try.

I will say that after the Easter ideas the book wasn’t as applicable for me. The authors are Catholic and so they have special saints days they celebrate at different times, which isn’t something we do. But there was enough good food for thought in the other sections to make Feast a worthwhile read for me.

life giving home

Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-giving Home is arranged around the year too, although I didn’t take as many notes on practical things to do in January versus May or anything like that.  Those ideas are there, but I found the book to be more helpful to me in giving me a stronger vision for the way that my home and life can better express the truth and beauty I believe in, versus specific decorating or menu ideas.

I love the point the Clarkson’s make about how our homes and family cultures are ways to engage with the broader culture and a means to tell the story of what is most important to us. This is true no matter what we believe, and certainly worth serious thought. Are our lives–from our time to our traditions to our decorating aesthetic–telling the story we want them to? Are they restorative and life-giving for our families and friends and neighbors?

jameskasmith-youarewhatyoulove

If you want to dig more deeply into how our lives tell a story of what we love and reveal our vision of the good life, you should certainly check out James K. A. Smith’s latest work, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This book is powerfully insightful and profoundly challenging.

Smith talks about the way that our worship must incorporate not just our minds, but also our hearts. If we fail to capture and reorder our hearts, our head knowledge will not be enough. “You are what you love,” Smith writes, “because you live toward what you want.”  When we have misdirected loves it’s not because we have bad ideas, but because “our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices not propaganda.”

So if we are formed by liturgies whether we admit it or not, we ought to devote careful consideration to what those liturgies are. As a parent and teacher, this gives me a lot to think about. Of course we want to give our children truth and sound ideas, but are we going beyond that to capture their hearts with truth and beauty? Does our worship and our family culture give them a vision for what it means to flourish, or are we giving them second-rate music and sappy stories and then wondering why their palates incline them to cartoons and the mall?

This has so many implications for how we structure our time, our family culture, our schools, our work…while the book may seem the odd one out in this post, it really forms the basis for why and how we follow (or don’t) seasons, rhythms, and traditions–Christian or otherwise.

There is so much in You Are What You Love that I can’t begin to touch on all of it, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in habits, virtue, the good life, spiritual life…well, really I’d recommend it for anyone.

I haven’t finished thinking all of this through yet, so can’t give you my conclusions, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve considered these things and, if so, how you shape your family’s calendar or traditions as a result?

 
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A few more read-alouds set in Asia

We are wrapping up our study of the 20th century (and I can’t decide if we should start the ancient world again after spring break, or just do lots of random literature read-alouds until August? Thoughts?) and read several more good books set in Asia.  If you’re interested in the area or are studying the Korean and/or Vietnam Wars, these might be good choices.

inside outHannah (10) and I previously decided we didn’t really like verse novels, but Sarah (7) read Inside Out and Back Again and kept telling us how fantastic it is, so finally I read it and yes, it is fantastic!  Hannah grudgingly agreed that it was all right, because she liked the author’s second book (below) better, but we all enjoyed talking about Inside Out.

The book tells the story of a girl whose family has to leave Vietnam near the end of the Vietnam War. Emigrating to the US, the little girl faces all kind of challenges–language, customs, bullies–and yet bravely learns to stand up for herself.  These are such great topics for elementary school kids, both in how to treat others who are different and how to behave when you yourself are different.

Even if you think you don’t like verse novels, I highly recommend you give Inside Out and Back Again a try.

listen slowly

Naturally, we wanted to read Thanha Lai’s second book, Listen, Slowly. The book is a novel rather than a verse novel (I think it was a sound move for Lai to branch out, but also brave since her verse novel won awards and it probably would have been easy to let herself be pigeonholed in that genre) and it is set in Vietnam, so you get more details about the country.  I’m not sure which book I liked most.

Listen, Slowly follows two girls–one born in America to parents who fled Vietnam as children during the war, and one her cousin who grew up in Vietnam.  As they come to understand each other, the reader learns a lot about Vietnamese culture and also gets an outside-in view of some of the silly parts of American tween culture in the process.

The book had some great discussion topics like how we can view our own culture, how to figure out if someone is really a true friend, why we respect our elders, and the like.

One caveat for younger readers: There is an episode in Listen, Slowly when the American tween advises the Vietnamese cousins that they should convert their underwear to thongs.  I wound up having to explain to Hannah what thongs were, which is fine but I wasn’t expecting the question!  She declared the whole idea “completely ridiculous” and later in the book the American tween character does too, but I thought I’d mention it as a heads up.

seesaw girlSeesaw Girl was our read-aloud choice about Korea. Although it’s set in the 1600s, there were a lot of great cultural references that I thought helped round out our understanding.  We read other picture books and shorter chapter books set in Korea too, but really enjoyed Linda Sue Park’s story.

I loved the setting details Park included–sometimes children’s books are light there but Park did a great job of evoking both the historical and geographical settings.

The kids read several other books by Park and enjoyed them all. Jack (8) tried to teach himself Korean from some YouTube videos.  Hannah asked for a hanbok for her birthday. We briefly looked up airfare to Korea (my family lived there when I was in 7th and 8th grades and I would love to visit again) but, to paraphrase Kermit the Frog from a non-Korea-related movie quote, “that would cost as much as an Oldsmobile” so we had to settle for going out to dinner at a Korean restaurant.

water-buffalo-days-cover1To be honest, Water Buffalo Days was a kind of disappointing read-aloud. I think it was partially because the kids had already read The Land I Lost by the same author so they knew more stories and details and they thought this was “a little kid version” and were not super enthused.  As the person reading aloud, I wished the book would have had more setting details.

We didn’t hate it, but the consensus among the kids was that you should read The Land I Lost instead of Water Buffalo Days.

 

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Notes From a Small Island

notes from a small islandIf you enjoy travelogues and/or have a deep and abiding love for Britain, I highly, highly recommend that you read Bill Bryson’s excellent Notes from a Small Island.

Bryson, an American who went to live in England just after college, married an English girl, and raised a family there for twenty years, undertook a weeks long trek around the island prior to moving back to the US.  His documentation of the trip is funny, interesting, and clearly the work of a committed Anglophile.

I enjoyed reading of Bryson’s adventures and determined that I’ll have to re-read the book if I ever get the chance to make a lengthy trip to England myself.  While I wouldn’t want to follow the exact same itinerary or see the same things necessarily, I think the book would give some good ideas for a long trip.

My favorite part of the book came at the end, when Bryson’s wife picks him up from the train station and they drive home.  He sees his stone house, which was built before American independence, and the church in his town, which was built before Columbus set foot in the new world, and reckons how lovely it is to return home after a journey and how much he loves this part of the world.

Notes from a Small Island is a fun, touching, and delightful read, and I highly recommend it.

 

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A few books on the science, philosophy, and mysteries of the mind

I’m on a spree of categorizing my books read this month – and I’m linking this one up at QuickLit. It’s interesting in hindsight how I tend to read in sets without planning it that way in advance. As I looked over my list of recent reads, I noticed that a few were on the mind, but from different perspectives.

mind changeIn Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, Susan Greenfield leverages her background in philosophy and neuroscience to explore the ever increasing field of research into how technology impacts and changes our brains.  Greenfield is not a Luddite–she discusses positive aspects of screen use and presents a balanced view of research findings–but she doesn’t pull any punches about the implications of the facts.  If you’ve read much on this topic it won’t really surprise you–computers, smart phones, video games, social media, and the like have a significant effect on how we think, read, and solve problems.  As Greenfield points out, these technologies aren’t going away, but if we understand them and their impact on ourselves and our kids, we can be smart and intentional about technology use in light of what sort of society we want to live in and what sort of people we want to be.

world-beyond-your-headThe World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction comes at the problem of what modern life is doing to our brains from a different, more philosophical angle.  Instead of asking, “Should we use technology?” this book asks “How is our culture impacting our ability to pay attention, and what does that mean for our way of life?”  I appreciated that the author, an academic, wrote a book of philosophy while maintaining a highly readable style.  If you have a background in philosophy, you’ll like how Crawford traces our current problem of attention back through the logical consequences of previous philosophical breakthroughs, but even if you’re coming to the topic cold Crawford’s style won’t overwhelm you and will certainly give you a lot to think about.

fermat's enigmaFermat’s Enigma combines an interesting history of mathematicians with the intriguing story of how mathematics’ most interesting problem was finally solved.  I love learning how math works if I don’t have to actually sit there and do the tedious work of adding and multiplying, so I really enjoyed reading about the different mathematicians who contributed to the problem’s solution, and the proofs and breakthroughs that advanced the study of math along the way.  Plus the problem was finally solved by a Princeton professor, so, school pride!  Not that I can really claim any personal connection to the math department, seeing as how I fell off the wagon at Calculus 104 and never made it to the cool stuff.  Still, this is a great book if you’re interested in the subject, and I’d recommend it.

rising-strong-book-coverBrene Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong, explores the way we think about our circumstances through the stories we tell, and how we can take control of those stories to live more “wholehearted” lives.

While I didn’t find it as helpful as her previous works, I did think the story framework was interesting. I’ve always called this “narrating” my life, and didn’t realize everyone did so, but that makes sense.  I’ve noticed before that my stories are not always accurate, and it does take a huge effort to unpack why I’m crafting my explanatory story one way or another.  Brown’s insight will help people who haven’t considered this aspect of thinking, and her suggestions could be really powerful impetus to corral your thoughts and change the trajectory of your thinking so you can have healthier relationships and a better outlook on life.

Have you read anything interesting along these lines recently?

 

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King Lear, a Pandemic, and the Good Life

StationElevenIn Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel creates a rich novel structured around the intersecting lives of main characters as they are impacted by a world-wide flu pandemic. If you love excellent world-building, beautiful writing, interesting characters, and a compelling plot, you’ll enjoy this book.

But, as in all really great books, this novel goes much deeper than the surface story to explore deeper questions. The book delves seamlessly into nuanced explorations of technology, connection, art, and purpose. The pandemic provides a great hook and drives the narrative, but in the end the reader is left thinking about ways to make better choices even if 99% of humanity is not wiped out by the flu any time soon.

Mandel’s work joins an increasingly popular genre. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know it framework is of course a good plot propeller, but I think it resonates now because people feel harried and fragmented and sometimes it really seems like it would take something massive–no electricity! no internet! zombies!–to jar us out of our warp speed.

But this feeling–that we are caught up in modern life and have no choice in the matter–is an illusion. And it’s one of the themes Mandel explores so well in Station Eleven. Before the collapse, Mandel’s characters can’t see their way clear to do what they really love, live the way they really want to, establish deep connection with their families, or stay true to themselves.  They are caught up in the superficiality of social media interaction, chasing fame, sleep-walking through jobs full of banality and cliches and long purposeless hours in a desk chair.  When the modern era collapses around them, they find ways to live with purpose and beauty even in the midst of uncertainty. Both eras see characters who create and characters who destroy, those who choose to add beauty and those who feel locked in by their circumstances.

As their stories unfold through flashbacks and the real-time narrative arc, we begin to see that the characters may have had the freedom to make difference choices in the pre-pandemic world too, which leaves what would otherwise be a kind of dark story with a pervasive sense of hope.  Maybe we don’t have to accept the surface-level friending and flippant comments, the rat race of how careers are supposed to work and endless chasing after illusory rewards and empty goals.  Maybe instead we can choose–even in our modern milieu–for deeper relationships and greater purpose, for truth and beauty and a life well-lived.

Station Eleven is the sort of novel you should not start at 9pm, because you will want to stay up all night reading it.  It’s a fantastic story and very well conceived, beautifully composed with lovely use of language and scene.  But it’s also an invitation to think about what matters in life and how you can live more deliberately, and that makes the book even better than its technical excellence and entertainment value.

I’d recommend this one pretty highly, and think it would also be a great book club selection – so many things to think about and discuss, with lots of possible perspectives and positions to explore.

 

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An Excellent Memoir of Growing Up in Soviet Russia

crumbsIn 1993, when I was in 9th grade, I did a Russian exchange program. We lived in Germany at the time so it wasn’t as huge an undertaking as getting there from the US would have been. Our group spent several days in St. Petersburg at the beginning, then several days in Moscow at the end, and in between we stayed with Russian families in a little textile town called Ivanovo.

When I ran across Elena Gorokhova’s memoir A Mountain of Crumbs I nearly fell out of my chair because Gorokhova’s mother was from Ivanovo–and it sounded like the passage of decades between when Gorokhova left Russia for the US and when I visited hadn’t changed very much about the general standards of living.  The author writes about her experiences with exchange students in the 80s, and it was so fascinating to get the other perspective.  My point of view was as an American kid wondering how on earth a family made up of parents, grandmother, great-aunt, daughter, and a dog lived in two rooms plus a small kitchen and balcony apartment, wondering why the daughter didn’t seem to have many clothes and none of them were what teenagers wore in the West, wondering why there wasn’t actually anything for sale in the store we visited…and yet the whole family was very polite and friendly and had a dacha, which I thought sounded like a vacation home–and kind of upper class.  Now I’m wondering what lengths they must have gone to just to pull together what they did have, and also thinking about the ways their mindsets formed in Soviet Russia might have influenced their perceptions of me as a Western kid.

Gorokhova does a fantastic job in her memoir of painting a picture not just of what daily life was like in 1960s-1980s Soviet era Russia, but also of giving the reader insight into how people thought and why.  The writing is insightful and compelling, with balanced storytelling and development of family relationships.  Although I spent considerable time in high school, college, and thereafter reading about Russia and studying the language, I felt like Gorokhova’s perspective added depth and nuance to my understanding in a way most sources don’t cover.

Even if you don’t have a long-term interest in the region, I still think A Mountain of Crumbs would be a good investment of your reading time.  You’ll learn a lot about the country, develop a more well-rounded understanding of the Cold War era from a different perspective, and have the pleasure of reading a well-crafted memoir.

 

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