Monday, August 29, 2016

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin is a book that I've had sitting on my Kindle for a long time now.  When I first saw that a book existed that might help me become better at forming habits, I jumped to buy it, and then, characteristically, did not manage my time well enough to read it right away.  Typical.

Anyway, I've read it now, and I can say that there are some fantastic tips in here to help people form new habits and get their lives on track.  The book is divided into several sections, each focusing on a different aspect of habit formation.  These sections include, "Self-Knowledge," "Pillars of Habits," "The Best Time to Begin," "Desire, Ease and Excuses," and "Unique, Just Like Everyone Else." Reading through each chapter will lead you through the process of forming habits based around your personality, sticking to them until they become automatic, avoiding the pitfalls of giving up, and treating yourself when things go right.

One part of this guide that I completely agree with is Rubin's assertion that people function in different ways, and your own personality type should be taken into account when planning to start a new habit.  I especially enjoyed her theory of the Four Tendencies, in which Rubin divides up the world into four main types of people: Upholders, who respond favorably to outer and inner expectations, Questioners, who question all expectations and meet only the ones they can logically justify, Obligers, who respond favorably to outer expectations, but tend to let inner expectations slide, and Rebels, who resist all expectations.

I, without a doubt, am a textbook Upholder under this model. I enjoy making and following rules, I frequently set personal and professional goals, I love making to-do lists and hate making mistakes or letting people down. I tend to struggle with sticking to some habits because I try to do too much and burn out. I expect a lot of myself and get disappointed when things don't turn out perfectly. I learned while reading that my tendency type means that I need to structure less ambitious habits sometimes, forgive myself when I get off track, and start things NOW, instead of putting off new habits in the name of "research," or "waiting for the perfect day to start."

I also learned why my husband and I often clash and become bad influences on each other when we try to form new habits together - he is a classic Questioner.  I stick to rules to a fault, while he won't buy into anything he doesn't see the point of merely for structure's sake, and has no problem changing a practice that he no longer sees the benefit of. We are different people, and as such, we have to try and form habits in ways that work for us as individuals.  I had never really thought of forming habits in this way before.

After explaining how the different tendencies affect behavior, Rubin goes on to give tips for sticking to habits, what to do when the urge to make excuses or quit a habit arises, and how to judge whether it's time to give up a habit.  Every point she makes is thoroughly researched and backed up with statistics or anecdotes. My head is swimming with everything I read in this guide, and I need to go back and take some notes to make sure I don't lose any important details. I related strongly to many of the assertions that Rubin makes throughout this book, and I feel like a more serious study of it would yield many benefits. There's some really good stuff in here, and it helps that I match almost all of Rubin's tendencies and personality traits.  We are basically the same person. It might not be possible to reach nirvana with to-do lists, copious amounts of research, and neatly organized file folders, but gosh darn it, we're going to try!

Much like with Rubin's other self-improvement book, The Happiness Project, I want to soak all of her points in and remodel little pieces of my life. Better Than Before is a wonderful resource to jump start the process of pulling yourself together and creating the time for things that really matter to you.  As Rubin says, perfection isn't the end goal here, the goal is to be better than you were before, and this book will definitely help you take the first steps.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak is the story of Ed Kennedy, an underage cab driver who lives in a boring town and spends his days not living up to his potential. He hangs out with a trio of similarly aimless friends, struggles to get along with his difficult mother, and takes care of his loyal and offensively smelly dog, the Doorman. Ed is headed nowhere fast and he doesn't much seem to care.

His singularly unimpressive life veers off course, however, when he manages to foil a bank robbery and receives a playing card in the mail. The card lists the addresses of three people who need Ed's help. Heeding the inexplicable lure of the card, Ed becomes the Messenger, going from address to address and giving the people he finds what they need.

As he finishes helping the people on the cards he receives, new cards arrive with new people to help. Suddenly, Ed's life has a purpose. The cards test him in ways he hasn't been tested before, and he experiences the best and worst of people as he works his way through the names. He knows he is doing good work, but he is still bothered by the mystery of where these cards are coming from. Who is he working for, and why was he chosen for this mission? The answer, when it comes, will change Ed's understanding of the world.

Markus Zusak seems to have a knack for writing books that make a deep impression on me. The Book Thief was stunning and I Am the Messenger is similarly fantastic. These titles could not be more different from each other, but they share an emotional complexity that sticks with you long after you read their final pages.

As with The Book Thief, I Am the Messenger feels true.  At the beginning of the story, Ed is in a place that most of us can relate to--a young adult, not really sure who he is or what he wants to do with his life. When the cards start coming, he becomes a better version of himself. He begins to follow his instincts and help others. Sometimes the help is easy, like keeping an elderly woman company.  Sometimes the help is more difficult, like stopping a violent man from abusing his family.  With each name crossed off his list, Ed grows in confidence and inner strength. He matures through kindnesses, big and small, and ultimately realizes that lifting up others is the best way to lift up yourself.

This book revolves around the idea that each of us can make a difference in the world, that kindness and consideration for others has value, and that being helpful is important. These are philosophies that I wholeheartedly agree with, so this story had me from the moment Ed received his first card.

Aside from the theme, the language was beautiful, the characters were interesting, and the plot was well-paced. I was completed engaged in the story from beginning to end. The best moment of all was in the final pages of the novel, in which Zusak play a trick that I didn't see coming.  At first I was a little confused by the ending, but after a few moments of reflecting, the truth dawned on me and I was highly impressed. I've never read anything like it, and that's really saying something for me.

I Am the Messenger is undoubtedly the best book I've read so far this year. It was special to me in a way that is difficult to describe. I haven't heard many people talk about this one--The Book Thief is the Zusak novel that gets the lion's share of attention. However, this one is most definitely worth a read.  Ed Kennedy and his mission will worm their way into your brain and make you see the world differently. I love it when I find a new favorite. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

When it was announced that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was to be released, I, like many others, was very skeptical.  Would it fail to live up to the greatness of its predecessors?  Would the fact that it was in play format make it less enjoyable?  Does the story of Harry Potter even really need to continue? 

Initially, I wasn't super-excited to find out the answers to these questions.  I didn't attend a midnight release party for the book, and I didn't even rush to read it in the first weeks it came out.  I'm fortunate enough to have grown up with the original series, and those books are quite special to me.  I was almost afraid to read Cursed Child, not wanting any of the magic from the books to be spoiled with a substandard sequel.  Even worse, as reviews began to spread around the internet, some Potter fans were clearly upset. They claimed that the play read like fanfiction, that some details didn't match up with the books, and that it didn't feel like JK Rowling wrote it. I wasn't in a rush to see if they were right.

My indecision about reading the play was decided for me when I was given Cursed Child as a gift. It sat on my shelf for a bit until I finally gave into my curiosity and read it. I should have had more faith. It was awesome. Different from the original Harry Potter novels, but still awesome.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child picks up right at the epilogue to Deathly Hallows and focuses on Harry's son, Albus.  He struggles to live up to the task of being the son of "The Boy Who Lived," a feat made especially difficult by the fact that he isn't particularly like his famous father.  He feels like he can't measure up and these feelings of inadequacy create a sense of distance and loneliness from his family. When an opportunity to embark on a risky adventure to right a wrong from Harry's past presents itself, Albus plunges himself into a dangerous plot that threatens to undo everything Harry and his friends fought for all those years ago.

What stood out to me the most in this story was the depth of the relationships and emotions.  There is magic here, of course, but there is reality too.  This is a mature story with grownup problems that don't all revolve around wands and wizards. A son who feels like he isn't  good enough and a father that struggles to relate to him are at the heart of the conflict, and their problems feel real. I wasn't expecting such deep emotions to show up in a Harry Potter play, but there they were, taking center stage.  I was totally enthralled with the story written down - I can only imagine how engaging it must be to see this story performed. I so wish I could. 

I don't really understand the comments about fanfiction-style writing or the accusations of JK Rowling not writing this. Everything felt right to me. The characters from the original series are older, of course, but I felt like they retained their voices and personalities from the books.  The new characters were well written and interesting, especially Scorpius Malfoy, who I admit that I fell a little bit in love with. It was a treat to step into this world again, and I think Rowling's stamp is all over this.   It's not the same as getting another "real" Harry Potter book, but it didn't have to be. I appreciate that Rowling is stretching herself creatively and trying out new things in the Potter universe.

I think people put the original series on too high of a pedestal, and this made many fans overly critical of this play. Now, keep in mind, this is coming from a serious fan here. I love the original seven Harry Potter books to bits, but I can also remain open to enjoying this series in new ways and taking or leaving what I like or don't like.  Some fans have built up this world so high in their minds that absolutely nothing about this play could have ever pleased them. People wanted this story to be exactly the same as the other Potter books, and it obviously never could have been the same because it was a play.  So, many read Cursed Child with a mind to find flaws, errors, or things that didn't jive with their vision of how this world should look and sound. What these types of readers fail to realize, however, is that there really is no "should" or "right" when it comes to Harry Potter. I think it's sad that people were unable to loosen up and enjoy what was, at least in my mind, a very engaging and heartfelt story.

I'm glad that I finally decided to give Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a chance. It was fun and nostalgic to travel back to this magical world again, and I wasn't disappointed at all with the different format or older versions of the characters. I very much hope that a production of this play travels to the U.S. so I can have the chance to see it live.  For Potter fans, I feel that this is definitely worth a read.  Ignore those who were unable to enjoy it and just give it a shot.      

August Reading List: From My Shelves

Whoops!  I had this post all ready to go for the beginning of August, and then forgot to publish it!  I blame school starting up again.

 I buy too many books. I have known this about myself for some time, but a recent house organization project really brought the severity of this problem into focus for me. While cleaning out my closet, I pulled out lots of plastic storage bins that I hadn't actually looked through for years. I didn't even remember what was supposed to be in most of them, so I went through them one by one. Out of eight bins, two contained pictures and old souvenirs, one contained the parts to a fishtank, and one contained Christmas decorations. The remaining four were stuffed full of old books.  The shelves in the closet also contained stacks of old books.  The bookcase in my room was also overloaded with books and there was a knee-high stack of books on my floor.

I knew that I bought too many books, but until I had them all pulled out of their hiding places and stacked in front of me, I didn't realize how enormous my stash had become.  Following the steps I learned last April in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I evaluated each book in my collection and decided if I wanted to hang on to them or donate them. I ended up donating almost all of the books that I had read before. I kept a few books that were special favorites of mine and all of the books that I hadn't gotten around to reading yet (of which there are almost an entire large bookcase of).  I'm going to work on reading some of those this month.

I'm also going to combine my reading theme this month with my theme from last month - favorite authors.  I didn't get a chance to read very much in July, so I'm going to make a special effort to choose books this month that fall into both categories - books I already own that happen to be by authors I like.

Here's are the books I'm planning on reading so far:

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak - I loved The Book Thief and I've had this other novel by Markus Zusak hanging around on my shelves since last Christmas.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys - I bought this book a few months ago since it looked interesting and it was by the author who wrote Between Shades of Gray. I hadn't even read Between Shades of Gray at that point, but I had a feeling I was going to like it.  Well, I was right. I read it in June and I loved it.  Now it's time to try this novel.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee - I bought this novel right when it came out, but was actually afraid to read it based on the reviews. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my special favorites and I didn't want to read about an Atticus Finch that was racist.  I've got to give it a try though. This month is the perfect time.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo - I've owned this book since I was in high school, meaning that it has been sitting on my shelves for over ten years. Whoa. This will also fit into my Back to the Classics challenge.

Bonus Round Books:
Any of the Rainbow Rowell novels I have hanging around here - Attachments, Landline, and Carry On are all sitting on my shelves.
 Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Leviathan and John Green

Okay, let's get to it!      

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens


I just don't know about this one. I think I may have to turn my English degree back in because I just didn't click with Great Expectations. I'm not sure what went wrong here.  I count Charles Dickens among my favorite authors, I love reading classics, and I especially love the literature of the Victorian time period.  Many people claim that Great Expectations is Dickens' best novel. Why wasn't I wowed by the adventures of Pip?

Rather than follow my usual Dickens MO of falling in love with the cast of quirky characters in this book, I found myself bored while reading.  My mind wandered. I struggled to focus and I took forever to finish the book.  I disappointed myself with my own lack of enthusiasm.  All in all, this was a slog of a read, and I feel embarrassed to say that.

Maybe it was the plot that failed to woo me.  Great Expectations tells the life story of Pip, a young orphan being raised "by hand" by his tyrannical sister and her kindhearted husband, Joe. His young life is rather modest and dreary, but it is occasionally punctuated by adventures, like when he unwittingly gets drawn into assisting in the escape of a convict, and when he is called upon to keep Miss Havisham, an eccentric jilted bride, company. Pip, although born with nothing to his name, longs to be a real gentleman, and his wish is eventually granted by a mysterious benefactor that finances his education and pays his living expenses under the condition that Pip doesn't try to find out who he is.

Of course, Pip eventually realizes that wealth and class are not all that they appear to be.  He becomes ashamed of his new extravagant lifestyle and the way he forgets his old family and friends. When his mysterious benefactor is finally revealed, everything turns on its head and Pip must find a way to sort out his problems and become a person he can be proud of again.  Pip tells his own story in his own words, and speaks directly to the reader at times.

I found the beginning and the end of this narrative easier to make my way through than the middle, which I felt dragged. The story was meant to read like a soap opera, with surprise coincidences and little twists along the way, but I was never able to truly get invested in the plot.  I felt disconnected and kept forgetting character names and little events from the past, not a good thing in a story where everyone/everything, however seemingly unimportant, returns to the story at one point or another. 

Despite my negative tone here, I didn't hate this novel. It was mildly enjoyable.  It's just that I was expecting to LOVE it.  It was definitely full of Dickens' trademark wit and charm, and there were moments where I laughed at the smart sarcasm in Pip's narration, but these moments didn't come along as often as I'd like.  I also found myself frequently confused at many of the allusions in the text.  I don't know a lot about the restaurants, plays and hotels of Victorian England, so I felt like I was missing out on a lot of rich detail throughout my reading.  

Many of the characters were difficult to like as well.  Pip, by his own admission, behaves quite thoughtlessly throughout most of the novel and his growth, when it does arrive, feels a bit hollow. His feelings regarding some of the other characters, especially Estella and Magwitch, were extremely difficult for me to understand.  I struggled to relate, which made the interactions between these characters feel less than genuine. 

The main romantic interest in the story, Estella, wasn't fun to read.  She existed only to torment Pip throughout most of the novel, and her flatness bugged me. I know that well-developed female characters aren't exactly a hallmark of Dickens' writing, but Estella embodied all of the worst stereotypes assigned to females and her presence (and Pip's never-ending fascination with her) grew tiring. It's a shame too, because her background had such potential.  She was a tool hand-crafted by Miss Havisham to wreak revenge on men.  There could have been a lot of fun there, but instead she was arrogant and annoying in all her scenes.  It felt like a waste.

That being said, Miss Havisham was an amazing character.  The jilted bride, moldering away in her old wedding dress and raising up an adopted daughter to be a blight on men was so odd and creative that I couldn't help but like the character.  Miss Havisham is one of the most famous characters in all of literature - even those who haven't read Great Expectations have heard of her.  She was definitely a bright spot in what was, unfortunately, a bit of a dull read for me. I am glad I read this novel, if only to get to meet her.

Ultimately, I'm uneasy with my feelings about Great Expectations. I don't understand why I didn't fall under its spell, the way so many other readers have. I know that not every person can like every book, but this is the sort of novel I should have loved. Huh.

At least I can say now that I've given it a shot and expanded my knowledge of Dickens' cannon. There are a lot more works by Charles Dickens that I haven't read yet, so I'm far from finished with this man.  Hopefully I'll find more favorites from him in the future.


July 2016 Wrap Up

Whoops!  I had this all written up to post at the beginning of August and I totally forgot!
Better late than never, I suppose. 

I can't believe that July has already come to an end, and with it my month of reading books from my favorite authors is over too.  Since I spent most of the month finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, I was only able to finish two books for this theme.  The final tally will actually be three books, since I'll be finishing Great Expectations in a few days (I'll update this post once I do).

So, what has my reading this month taught me?  Mainly, that I need to make time to explore the works of my favorite authors more often! There are so many books out there that I want to read that I tend to hop from one author to the next and forget to revisit the authors I loved. I'm resolving to make more of an effort from now on to read more works from authors I like.

Books Read

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Best of the Month: Roman Fever and Other Stories
Worst of the Month: None of there were really a "worst"

Since I only got a chance to finish a few books this month, I'm going to combine this theme with my theme for August. In August, I plan to read books that have been sitting on my shelves, collecting dust.  A lot of those books include works from authors I like, so the two ideas will work together nicely.

I'm way behind on my goal to read 100 books this year (thanks a lot, Alexandre Dumas), so I need to pick up the pace if I want to get back on track.  My summer break is over and I will be going back to work starting tomorrow, so I'm about to be very busy.  I'm determined to carry on with reading though - my reading time is sacred!