Do you do your best thinking in the shower? I do. Sometimes I wonder if the puzzles of world peace or missing socks would best be solved if we all bathed together. On second thought…
This weekend I had another one of my water logged revelations. Or maybe they are epiphanies. It was about the theme of several of the books I’ve read lately.
Three of the books I’ve read over the past several months deal with the notion of being lost. I didn’t intentionally choose the books for this theme, but hindsight suggests that maybe I was (subconsciously) leaning toward books that might explain, commiserate, or even guide me through what I am seemingly experiencing right now, which is a sense of being lost. I think I’m feeling this way primarily about various forks along my vocational road, both the ones at my feet right now and the ones I sense ahead. The forks well behind me certainly come into all of this too, though for entirely different reasons.
I feel like I’m feeling my way in the dark so much of the time, aimlessly wandering down a path toward an unknown, uncharted destination.
The sensation of feeling a bit lost also seems to be tied to “where I see myself in the next ten years” (to use a job interview phrase) around the time when I will turn fifty and my daughter will be close to embarking out on her own. I am more of a planner by nature than a free-spirited wanderer, so the past three years in particular have really cut against the grain of who I am (though, surprisingly, in profoundly good ways). Still, I think about how the choices I make right now play into all that is yet to come. I’m constantly thinking about all of this, on some level, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got to make some choices soon. No more wasting time. I’ve got to “find” myself and get back on the map.
The books, you ask?
Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding by Lynn Darling,
Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and most recently,
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.
There was even a poem that I found serendipitously last week in my copy of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor: Lost by David Wagoner. How apt.
I’ve liked each book for very different reasons—indeed they each involve entirely different circumstances and writing styles. I found myself underlining passages quite frequently in Out of the Woods (which I reviewed briefly here) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
At minimum, they’ve shown me that I’m not unique in the experience of feeling or getting lost, even at this age. In fact, I venture to guess that, for many of us, more of us feel this way around the age of 40 than other ages, though no one seems to talk about it. Does this feeling ever subside down the road? I’m going to have to get back to you on that, but I can say that for myself, the feeling right now is more palpable than it has been since I was about 25 or so. It is unexpected, to say the least. Aren’t we supposed to be sure of ourselves four decades in? I’m not so sure anymore.
But there’s a passage in Solnit’s book that seems to help me think about it all with fresh eyes:
…the real difficulties, the real arts of survival, seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next. These captives lay out in a stark and dramatic way what goes on in every day life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were. Seldom is it as dramatic, but nevertheless, something of this journey between the near and the far goes on in every life. Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others.
She goes on for another few pages talking about butterflies and metamorphosis, with the chrysalis and instar stages, an example so completely perfect and written so compellingly that I highly recommend you seek it out sometime (it is just too long to put down here). But she gets to the nub, I think, of where I currently am, which is maybe not lost after all.
Do you seem to read books in clusters of a particular theme? Is it intentional or do you only realize it after the fact? Do you think it matters if you are choosing fiction or nonfiction as the source? Is one more of an escape and the other a how-to manual?
HOUSEKEEPING: For any non-Twitter, non-Bloglovin’ (or other similar kind of feed) folks out there, I want to let you know that I have created a Facebook Page where you can follow all of my writing, not just what appears on my blog. It’s called “Kristen Ploetz, Writer”. Hope to see you there.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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
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