This might be a weird post. An SOS of sorts. But here goes.
I was very fortunate to add two new bookcases to my living room this summer. Now I finally have so much room to display what I’ve read over the years . . . and, well, what I haven’t read!
I have a bad habit, you see. I pick up books to read “someday” all the time. At the bookstore. At Goodwill. At library sales. At Commonwealth Books, my favorite pre-dentist stop. At Crow Bookshop in Burlington, VT when we visit each October. New, used. It doesn’t matter. I am a book fiend.
And, until this bookcase, I just tossed them in random places all over the house. But now, seeing them lined up like idle sentries, I am a bit befuddled about which ones to read next. There are so many!*
And since I cannot stop myself, I fear there will soon be more now that I have the real estate to give them homes.
So, tell me, dear reader, which of these books have you read and is a must read?
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
Postcards, E. Annie Proulx
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
So Much a Part of You, Polly Dugan (I just picked this one up; still very recent)
Wisdom of the Last Farmer, David Mas Masumoto
The Big House, George Howe Colt (I actually started this in 2013, but only got about 20% in, though I can’t recall why)
Me Before You, JoJo Moyes
The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball
The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin (I’m about 20% in and love the story/prose, but got distracted with other books this summer)
Still Life With Insects, Brian Kiteley (50% done; put down for other books this summer)
Dreams of Sleep, Josephine Humprhies (10% done; really was enjoying it…then distracted by other books)
Mennonite in a Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen (10% done…again, distracted)
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Berg (yes, I am the last female on Earth to not have read this)
About Alice, Calvin Trillin
Women, Animals, and Vegetables, Maxine Kumin
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss (started in late 2012, but was having a hard time getting through beginning)
The Circle, Dave Eggers
I’m about to start a new book (Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob) for my book group once I finish what I’m currently reading (My Family and Other Hazards, by June Melby), but after that I’d love to know what I should tackle from my “TBR” shelf. Help!
Please leave me a comment about what I should read/finish next (and maybe a bit of why). Do you see an author here that maybe has another book that is stronger than the one I’ve got and should read instead? (Or, if there is something that is NOT worth my time, tell me and I promise to keep those comments private.) Thank you!
*Admission: I actually have way more than what’s on this list and shelf, but the others are a kind of nonfiction that I tend to read in short bursts anyway, or were otherwise given to me and I can tell are not up my alley at this point in my life.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I normally don’t read (much less review) books like Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently, by Caroline L. Arnold, but I really liked the premise of the notion that in order to see big changes (over the long term) all it takes is a micro change that you commit to and stick with. Knowing that there a few people in my life (personally and online) who lament about things they wish they could do differently or changes they wish they could make permanent, I thought perhaps I’d share a quick review of this book.
As the book jacket aptly points out,
[N]early 90 percent of personal improvement resolutions end in failure. These endless defeats may tempt you to take increasingly drastic steps to effect change, but in fact it’s the small but pivotal behavioral change—the microresolution—that is actually most likely to get you to your goal.
Arnold more succinctly puts it like this a few pages into the introduction:
The way to free ourselves from cynicism and reverse our expectation of failure is to learn how to make resolutions we can sustain.
A microresolution is easy to keep.
It makes sense, really, when you think about all those grand plans of initiating a major life(style) change and then finding yourself failing or flailing mere weeks or even days later. That’s the beauty of the microresolution. It’s small enough to keep but also big enough to eventually make a difference.
One of Arnold’s own examples related to losing weight. Sound familiar? Instead of a sweeping resolution to “get thin by summer” or “never snack again” or “never eat cookies again”, she did something very specific: she (micro)resolved to never eat the conference room cookies again. In other words, she “kept [her] resolution reasonable and limited“. By structuring it in this very precise way, it was not only easy to accomplish, but also easy to measure success. If there were cookies in the conference room and she didn’t eat any, she succeeded. It was but one way that she started the effort to reach her larger goal of thwarting her increasing weight gain.
I mean, it’s so refreshingly simple, isn’t it? I think so.
After an enlightening short chapter about why our typically larger resolutions fail, in Part One of the book Arnold gets into the seven “rules” for making microresolutions. In quick chapters, she uses examples from her own life as well as others’, pointing out what worked, what didn’t. She instructs us on the how and why of making microresolutions, with advice about how to give it a positive spin and structuring them in a way to offer almost immediate gratification when we achieve the goal on a daily (or otherwise regular) basis. She points out how to tell when a microresolution isn’t small enough, and when it can be expanded. Arnold educates us about the difference between our new behaviors and bona fide good habits (that will eventually form if we stick with our microresolutions for the long term).
She also tells us how many microresolutions we should have at any given time. Ready for this? TWO. That’s it.
Part Two of the book digs a little deeper into various realms that a reader might want to focus her microresolutions, with each chapter focusing on a different one: sleep, fitness, diet/nutrition, clutter, relationships, spending, punctuality, and organization. Obviously you can skip to the chapter(s) that might resonate with you most given what you are trying to accomplish.
For me, I basically focused on the diet/nutrition chapter the most, but I did also peek at the relationships and organization chapters as well, making mental notes for later.
Since I found this book at the library and read it right before vacation, I decided to wait until I returned to actually start my microresolutions, knowing that I couldn’t keep them in their first week while on a very indulgent time away from home. Why start with a failure, right?
So here are my two current microresolutions:
1. No eating after 10pm. A lot of the regrettable eating (and, let’s face it, occasionally some drinks too, especially in summer) happens in the half hour before I usually go to bed. I’m resolving to stop that. Only a few days in, it’s hard, but manageable, and that’s the point.
2. No wheat between wake-up and 4pm. I’m not sure if I’ve structured this one the right way yet. But the truth is I get really bloated when I eat wheat, end up feeling crabby if I eat too much of it, and most of it is snacking or “I’m too lazy to make something healthy”. Like the Goldfish lying around, or a couple of slices left over from last night’s loaf of crusty bread. But I love, LOVE bread and pizza and the like, so I am intentionally still allowing myself those things, but it might be for dinner, rather than all day long. I’m also not cutting out carbs altogether with this one–I can still have a baked potato for lunch or have popcorn as a snack. Maybe not much healthier than a hunk of bread and butter, but certainly some. Notably those also take more work to make than slicing a baguette, so I am not even sure there will end up being a tit for tat replacement because I’m lazy sometimes.
All in all, what Arnold points out is intuitive. But before this book I hadn’t really thought about it quite the same (or right) way, particularly all of the reasons why bigger resolutions often fall by the wayside, AND that it is OK to make the smallest of changes and still call it a success. I think too many of us feel like we have to go big or go home with everything, and that’s just not the case.
I’ll keep you posted periodically of how I do with these microresolutions.
What about you? Is there some small change that you could make? Let’s microresolve together!
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
The new bookshelves are here. I’m being deliberate about what goes where, which books will get priority seating. It’s a task that I could get lost in forever, perhaps especially this summer. Truth is, I’m having a rough go of it. I feel perpetually raw for so many reasons, known and unknown. My status, it seems, has hovered somewhere between salt in wound and gnat in room, with a cloak of irrelevance worn too many times in between. It’s hard to feel like that all of the time. Books have become my balm. They are my friends right now. We’re tight. We hang.
Yet given the many obligations I have to tend to, I can’t take all that much time to ponder the placement of my closest confidants. Maybe another time, but not right now. There are repair men to wait for, suitcases to be packed, dust motes to battle.
Still, I am indulging in a quick glance at my books as I tuck each one away. When I picked up Observe the Lark, poems by Katie Louchheim, I happened to turn to this poem. I don’t remember ever reading it, though I must have. It’s almost like she was speaking directly to me, right here in this moment. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall having read it before, when it wasn’t relevant. I suppose this is why books can so easily become friends—they always offer exactly the right words to say at exactly the right time.
The Sensitive One
You who are so sensitive,
so finely honed, so favored,
you walk through words.
The trees talk to you,
fiercely dispute their right
to own your silence.
Lush meadows, pleading streams,
lonely paths call you by name,
memorize your footfall.
You close the troubled doors,
You were last observed
reforesting, planting a new world.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Yesterday, I saw a tweet from Harvey Freedenberg (@HarvF), with a link to this New York Times article, “All Blurbed Out“, which was written by author Jennifer Weiner. The opinion piece—which I found quite interesting—talked about the blurbs you see on books. You know, those short statements of praise you see on book covers to try and lure you into buying the book. One particular passage from the piece stuck out for me:
But does all this praise actually sell books? Surprisingly, no one I’ve talked to in publishing can say with certainty whether even the most extravagant endorsement has sold a single copy.
Hmmm. I thought about that for a minute. Do I buy books based on these blurbs? Well, usually no, it turns out. With one exception,* I can’t think of a time where I was specifically swayed one way or another because of a blurb. To be honest, I am not sure whether I really care what some person from this Herald or that Tribune says about a book. Maybe I care slightly more if an author whom I already love gives some book love for a new release, but I am certainly skeptical about it too (as in, did that person really read the book?).
I am more of a “judge a book by its cover” and “what is the story about” kind of gal, especially if I am new to a particular author. And, especially now with Twitter and some really wonderful bloggers out there, I find myself listening to reports from these sources, and increasingly so. I follow these people because I detect a very similar interest in certain kinds of writing and/or a level of rigor in critiquing books that assures me that I will not be led astray with a book that the person highly favors. As an aside, thanks to another tweet later that same day (via @SarahBrentyn) to this Slate article, I found a bit of validation about something I’ve been sensing on Twitter as of late (and not in a good way) that seems to indicate every book ever read or written by people in my Twitter feed/blog lists is the Best.Book.Ever.Written. Some weeks the praise churning through these sources feels slightly suffocating and repetitive, and, in a few cases, almost lacks authenticity. Sometimes it feels almost like fawning, maybe most especially when it is clear that there is a personal connection between reader and author. I’m not saying that bloggers/tweeters should waste their time writing about bad books. No wait, I am saying that. I think those critiques count too, and can be done respectfully without personal attacks on the author. I hope to see more of them. I think it makes us better readers and, for those of us who write, better writers too.
But back to the blurbs. Despite my non-reliance on them whatsoever pre-purchase, in the past month I realized I had, in fact, found myself comparing my take on three particular books to what the blurbs said, just to see if I agreed. I did this only once I finished them, or in the case of one book, to put it down as a DNF. I’m not sure if this is the strategy that the publishers are aiming for, but I started doing it for some unknown reason recently.
Here are the three books, and my brief thoughts about their accompanying blurbs.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman (essays) – I picked this book up while on a short trip to South Carolina a few weeks ago. It’s not a new release; it was originally published in 1998. But since I really like books about books, and increasingly favor essays, I picked it up anyway because good writing is timeless. I also wanted something easy to pick up and put down with only pockets of free time during our time away. It did not disappoint. This collection of eighteen essays is just so wonderful and a must read for any bibliophile. If you have a passion for books, you will see yourself in many of these essays. Two of my favorite essays were, “Marrying Libraries” (where she chronicles, with much humor and wry observation, how she and her husband commingled their sometimes overlapping collections upon marriage) and “Never Do That to a Book” (describing, tongue in cheek, the travesties and abuse books often take, like, gasp, dog-earing and annotations in the margins). This is a book where you get exactly where Fadiman is coming from, and you nod your head in total agreement. A lovely homage to books.
BLURB COMPARISON: The blurbs on the outside of this book did less for the book than did the ones inside, I think. The cover’s blurb (“A terrifically entertaining collection of personal essays about books…Heartening, tender, wise and hilarious,” Patsy Baudoin of The Boston Book Review) is spot on, but the ones on back? Boring. Glad I didn’t look there before buying this book. The inside blurbs (some repeat from the covers) are more accurate, especially the one from Entertainment Weekly.
In Between Dreams, Iman Verjee (novel) – Upfront caveat: I did not finish this book. It had nothing to do with the actual writing of the book. In fact, I am wondering if that is what made me, ultimately, put it down about a third of the way through. It was too real and insightful. Verjeee is a decent writer, insofar as I can tell from the portion of the book that I actually did read. But I just could not take the subject matter woven throughout the story. As a parent now, there are just some topics that I can’t stomach anymore. [SPOILER ALERT: it features a good dose of incest, and it is not just over and done with in an opening scene. The theme permeates throughout the book (at least from what I gathered by flipping ahead several chapters to see if I could possibly just skim quickly the parts that were hard to take).] So, I had to give this a DNF. I feel bad about that, but it’s just not something I can read. I guess I did not read between the lines enough on the jacket flap to see that this is what the book would be about.
BLURB COMPARISON: There are only two blurbs, but from one person, a short one on the cover and a paragraph on the back. From what I read, I think the back cover blurb is fitting to the extent that the subject matter does “continue to haunt the reader’s thoughts long after the last page is finished”, except in my case it wasn’t the last page of the book, sadly. I am wondering why there is only one “blurber” . . . is that a sign? I’m not sure.
Acts of God, Ellen Gilchrist (short stories) – I read this over the course of a day and a half this weekend. Gilchrist is a new to me author, and I really did enjoy her storytelling. I am increasingly being drawn into the short story format as I work on some of my own. As a result of this book I will be seeking out (eventually) other things by her. If I had to describe these ten short stories, only two of which are connected to each other, I would say that they read like personal narratives, even when not told in the first person and even though they are fiction. They felt real. For me to say that is a big compliment because until about the past year or so, I have almost always read far more non-fiction than fiction. I like things to feel real (which is why I don’t read fiction that is about vampires or science fiction). And these stories do. I love how Gilchrist taps in to a particular moment in time for these characters, often without a lot of background, and almost immediately you get a sense of their character, what they sound/look like, and their internal thought processes. There is a clarity in the stories that lends itself to familiarity, like I already know these people. I feel, in most of them, wedded to their story and the outcome. That is hard to do in a short story unless you are someone who can tap into the central vein of a person quickly and convincingly, AND craft a story (versus just a description of what’s happening). She also has a knack for having something profound happen in the story, but also weaving in the mundane thoughts and actions that also fill even the most tragic of moments. That’s how life really is, and she captures it well. I really liked this collection. If I had to pick three favorites, I think they would be the opening story, “Acts of God”, “The Dissolution of the Myelin Sheath”, and “The Dogs” (which has an interesting format via letters among various neighbors).
BLURB COMPARISON: This is where, perhaps, blurbs irritate and confuse me a bit (listening, publishers?). It seems as though there are only two blurbs for this actual collection of stories, and then five blurbs for the author herself. Now, in my experience, most good writers stay good writers, but that is not always the case. Once in a while they write a clunker, plain and simple. So, blurbers, tell me about this book. That’s great if she wrote ten other amazing books. What about this one that I am about to fork over $23.95 for? This is the one I’m investing in now. OK, anyway . . . the scant blurbs about the book do align with what I read: the stores are “deliciously wise” and have a “humorous voice”, and her stories do “reflect a lifetime of observing, writing, and living.”
* A few weeks ago I reviewed (and loved) Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding, by Lynn Darling. This book was the exception to my “not relying on the blurb before buying” rule. When I turned the book over in the store, I saw that Geraldine Brooks, Dani Shapiro, and Katrina Kenison (among others) each wrote blurbs. Since I happen to really like these three authors, and was happy to see them all cheering for the same book, I read what they had to say. Their blurbs certainly sealed the deal for me buying this book. But again, that is so against my general book buying tendency I consider it a serendipitous aberration.
Lastly, if you see any typos, my apologies. I wrote this with a migraine, which I am now going to rectify with a short nap in lieu of editing.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
The cold month and lots of sickness in our house lent itself to long stints of book reading for me in April, and I was able to finish three books.* I review them chronologically here, but to be perfectly frank, it was the last one that took my breath away.
Without further ado . . .
Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything, by Barbara Ehrenreich (memoir). Perhaps it helps if you know the why of me wanting to read this: I’m an atheist who virtually always favors rational, analytical, science-based thinking. I was raised Roman Catholic early on, but pretty much dumped that whole train of thought around sixth or seventh grade and never looked back. I am a bona fide non-believer. Sounds warm and cuddly, right? And yet, after reading some blurbs about this book before its release date, my interest was quite piqued to learn that another self-proclaimed atheist/rational thinker (and a great writer at that) had some mystical “experiences” when she was a teenager (note: she actually talks about the use of the word “mystical” and others like it in her book, and her ambivalence toward them, but I use it here for simplicity). I wanted to know about that. And, more to the point, did it change the way she thinks in any capacity? Is there room for doubt about the unexplained experiences like hers, or is it something simply to be chalked up to a mental illness (or temporary short-circuit), altered consciousness, migraine, or even low-blood sugar? I wanted to read this book because I trusted her to be honest, straightforward, and rational about it all.
From a memoir writing perspective, Ehrenreich is a great storyteller and includes several salient details. If nothing else, this book is good for that. I really got a sense of her upbringing and her relationship with her parents, who were tough folks and staunch atheists (in contrast, I came to atheism completely on my own). There is some dysfunction within the home that she describes as well. I think this all added an interesting dimension to her story because it inevitably informs her whole mystical experience, much less about gods and religion generally, and how to parse it out. Here are two passages that give you a sense of where her head was at with her parents:
But could they be trusted, these rationalist, atheist parents of mine? You might think my father would have been a touchstone of truthfulness, with his insistence on logic, on always probing further with the question why, but on small matters he was a habitual liar, as we were reminded almost every day. [p.29]
If you can’t trust your parents and they are intelligent, apparently rational, and au courant, then you can’t trust much of anything, and that goes for science as well. Electrons, planets, genes—all these were made suspect, at some deep ontological level, by my parents’ endorsement of them. [p. 35]
She also details quite a bit about her educational background (which was science based), adding another layer to the whole premise of her mystical encounter . The science nerd in me (I majored in biology) really liked those portions of the book, but I can see where that might be a turn off for some because it does get a bit heady at times, particularly with chemistry and physics. For me, I instead got more bogged down and skimmed a little bit more through the passages about solipsism.
So did this book resolve anything for me? No, not really. I now wonder if I thought it would (at least subconsciously) because I finished it feeling a little flat and let down. But, overall, I did enjoy this book and read it almost nonstop because of the way she describes her observations, both of the mystical event and of life in general, especially in the natural, physical world. I underlined several passages in the book that were so in line with some of my own thinking, it was jarring. Here are a few of my favorites that will make sense without the context:
I have known people who are duller than trees, as well as individual trees that surpass most people in complexity and character. There are cloud formations that are more riveting than the shifting expressions on an ambivalent lover’s face. And if you want a companion whose range goes from gaiety to brooding menace, consider the surface of the sea. [p. 92]
And in what no longer seemed like a cringing surrender to the reproductive imperative, I became a mother. You may equivocate all you want about the autonomous consciousness of other humans, but when two of them arrive in your life out of nowhere, or out of what had seemed to be fairly inert material, two total strangers, and take up residence in your arms—well, the metaphysical question is settled. [p.195]
I have no patience with Goethe when he wrote, “The highest happiness of man is to have probed what is knowable, and to quietly revere what is unknowable.” Why “revere” the unknowable? Why not find out what it is? . . . It is not unscientific to search for what may not be there—from intelligent aliens to Higgs bosons or a vast “theory of everything” underlying all physical phenomena. it is something we may be innately compelled to do. [p.229]
And, perhaps the passage that best sums up this book,
Do I believe that there exist invisible beings capable of making mental contact with us to produce what humans call mystical experiences? No, I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender; “faith” a state of willed self-delusion. I do not believe in the existence of vampire-spirit-creatures capable of digging deep into our limbic systems while simultaneously messing with our cognitive faculties, whether we experience the result as madness or unbearable beauty. But experience—empirical experience—requires me to keep an open mind. And human solidarity, which is the only reason for writing a book, requires that I call on others to do so also. [p. 232]
Overall, I trusted Ehrenreich as a writer inasmuch as an observer of her own experiences. It didn’t feel exaggerated or evangelical, thankfully. In the end, it’s hard to really know what someone else experiences, but I trusted her account. I am not necessarily sure I fully accept the “why” of it all, at least not the way she comes around to it, but keeping an open mind, who am I to say anyway?
The Rooms are Filled, by Jessica Null Vealitzek (fiction). The reason I chose this book is because somewhere long before its release date, I had heard someone describe this book as a “quiet” book. It might have even been the author herself; I follow her on Twitter and read her blog occasionally, so maybe I read that there? Anyway, I liked that notion of “quiet” so I picked it up. It’s Vealitzek’s first novel and it’s a good one. It kept my interest the entire time and I essentially read it in one sitting. Set in the 1980s, it chronicles two lives that eventually intersect for a time: that of Michael, a nine year old boy who’s just moved to a new town following his father’s death, and that of Julia, a young woman (the boy’s teacher) figuring out her sexuality, also newly relocated to that same town. Both face their own kinds of conflict and figuring out just where they fit in to society, school and other relationships. The boy’s mother is also a character that gets a lot of time in the book as well, which I appreciated because I loved her sensibility and sweetness, all in the wake of her husband’s death.
I think Vealitzek does a wonderful job with dialogue in the story, both with pacing and authenticity. I really got the sense that I was listening to other folks talk and it didn’t feel forced. You really felt like you were seeing some private moments unfold between real people. I felt an enormous amount of empathy for each of the characters, but especially Michael. I really felt for him and what he was going through. I also had compassion for Julia, facing her own struggles, but it was hard to like her sometimes. I wanted her to be a stronger woman in the face of what she was going through, but that would have made an entirely different story and so I understand why she was written this way. Vealitzek does a great job of weaving the two stories together, chapter to chapter, scene to scene, also with a lot of flashbacks to when Michael’s father was alive. My heart ached for this boy throughout the entire book, but eventually we learn that things will be OK. The other characters that appear in the story are also wonderfully written, a testament to a solid piece of writing where no character feels superfluous or gratuitous. I will say one tiny nit-picky thing: there were a few words/references that felt a tad anachronistic given the 1980s setting. For example, in one passage a character says something would be kept “on the down low”, and in another Julia is talking about bullying policies with the principal; to me, these feel like terms/concerns from the new millennium so they felt slightly out of place. Again, nit-picky, I know, and something a closer edit might have caught.
I sincerely hope that Vealitzek is working on her next novel soon because she is a wonderful storyteller. The length of this book was spot on (though I do wish I know what ultimately happens to Julia!) and it seems like a genre that suits her heartfelt writing. Well done!
Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding, by Lynn Darling (memoir). I just finished this book yesterday. I haven’t even had time to fully process the truly wonderful, moving book that this was. It is the kind of writing and storytelling that will leave me unimpressed with anything else that I read, at least for a time.
Darling is already a widow at the time when her only daughter leaves for college, which is where this story opens. I must be honest: I wanted to read this book because she has an only daughter, just like I do. It seems that there are very few stories/memoirs written from the perspective of a parent of an only child, and so I latched on right away. I wanted to be able to see what that experience of finding out what one’s true self is like; that is, whom she was now that she was without her daughter, much less her husband, in her daily life. I felt compelled to read this book now while my own daughter is just 6.5 years old because I sensed that I would need that kind of temporal detachment in order to not be in utter shambles while reading it (didn’t work). Meaning that, when I read the dust jacket, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to read this book at the same time my own daughter was nearing or at her college age years (though having now read it fully, I know that I will read it then for guidance and solace).
The other reason I was drawn to this book is because of it’s primary setting: Woodstock, Vermont. My husband (who is very much alive, thankfully) and I have stayed there multiple times, even celebrating our engagement that same day in a restaurant right in the heart of Woodstock. Vermont is a place that holds so much magical appeal for me personally, and it is likely someplace that we will end up one day after our daughter moves on.
I cannot even do the book justice with anything that I write here. It’s a book about solitude and strength, and what it is like to be alone versus what it is like to be lonely. It’s about finding things and getting lost. It’s about letting go of what holds us back. It’s about a woman in the middle of her life (she was 44 when her husband died; 56 when her daughter entered college) dealing with a sense of loss, certainly, but also the newly found freedom to find new directions, to find herself. When you put so much of who you are into a spouse, career and/or child, and those things go away (which, inevitably, they usually do), what’s left? What about when, as Darling says so herself, your child “was the only thing I ever did right?” How will you define, or redefine, yourself then? That’s what Darling sets out to accomplish by leaving NYC and moving to rural Vermont alone. She figuratively, and quite literally, learns about finding direction in the woods. Like with most good stories, and life itself, her new life in Vermont is met with a challenge that she must learn to cope with, trudge through, and come out the other side of alone. But she does it, and it is quite inspiring to witness through her words how she does.
The metaphors she uses in this book are nothing short of spectacular. The prose and vocabulary are equally beautiful, like when she recalls being “unbuckled” from her daughter for the first time for camp, or when she’s listening to the “soft susurrus of the trees” in her new Vermont residence. This kind of writing, especially for someone like me who favors the woods and the natural world, and happens to also love maps (though my sense of direction and orienteering falls far short of what she ultimately learns), was like kryptonite: I could not put this book down. Darling hits you with her astute observations early in the book:
We all live by different lights—success, for some, desire for others—and take our bearings along different dreams. Some of us fly west with the night, into the unknown, urged on by adventure; others look only for the harbor lights, and stay safely in sight of home. But whichever way we choose, we come to rely on the sameness of our days, on the fact that for years at a time the road ahead looks much like the road behind, the horizon clear, the obstacles negotiable. And yet from time to time we stumble into wilderness. [p.4-5]
Or consider this passage:
Middle age resonates with so much loss, profound and superficial: expectations die, friendships fade, hairlines recede, looks change, and health and hope are no longer givens. It becomes easy to forget the fullness that has come before; self-pity, while a dreary threadbare flannel when worn by others, has a luxuriant silky feel when we wrap it around ourselves. [p. 55]
And how many of us will be able to relate to this one?:
Just as the woods are more intricate than any map could indicate, so, too, was the past more complicated and less drenched in emotion than my crude line drawings—this is where it all went south, this is where my luck turned—would indicate. Wander around in your memories long enough and you begin to realize that the maps you’ve made to the person you were and the life you lived can become outdated; my personal map was based on a set of narrow and harsh coordinates: all that I didn’t do or failed to accomplish, everything I meant to be and wasn’t, all the good things that had been and were no longer. The result was a map that failed to account for most of the country it covered. [p. 266]
This book is utterly lovely, if not heartbreaking throughout most of it, but in a profoundly insightful (and not depressing) way. Darling infuses educational bits—I’m so happy to have learned about “wolf trees”—as well as measured, dry wit. You will root for her during her low points, and cheer her on. You will find strength, as I did, in reading about someone who has walked the path before you, especially if you have children. You will feel like you have a friend by your side telling you how it’s going to be—between you and your spouse, between you and your child, between you and your own mother, between you and yourself—and that it will be OK regardless. This is a must read.
* I read fairly quickly, but it’s rare that I finish even one book in a single month. That’s primarily because I usually have about 5-8 books going at once. I used to be a linear reader, but going to law school at night changed that. Having to read multiple books in short, get-‘em-when-you-can pockets of time flipped some kind of switch in my reading brain many years ago. Some people don’t understand how I can read like this, but to me it’s no different than watching a different show on TV each night.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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