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The Giver by Lois Lowry

23 Jul

Book: The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Origin: 5th grade school reading assignment.

I re-read The Giver by Lois Lowry for the umpteenth time, just because. The Giver is one of the first books that had a remarkable impact on me as a child. I remember reading it in the fifth grade and becoming so absorbed in the transformation of Jonas from a naive 12 year old boy into a hardened, self-aware teen determined to find his own path. The whole concept of a dystopia was new to me and I fell in love. A world without color? A world where every child was treated exactly the same? Every person was assigned a career without any choice in the matter? One person held all the memories and feelings of an entire community? I had never read a book like it.

I also felt a certain affinity for Jonas that I’d never felt for a fictional character before. I’ve always been a hoarder of emotion, both my own and that of people around me. Even as a child, I often felt overburdened by unexplainable feelings and it seemed like nobody ever understood. Meeting Jonas was the first time I felt like I wasn’t alone. Even today, re-reading it for the millionth time, I still find comfort in Jonas’ quest.

Now as I read the book from the perspective of an aspiring children’s author, it’s become clear what all my favorite children’s books have in common: Stellar Writing. The books that have stayed with me may have been written for children, but they were never written in a childish voice. They give credit to the reader and am I am still awed at Lowry’s use of language and story-telling techniques.

Sometimes I think our standards have lowered since I was young. The Young Adult market has become so flooded with poorly written, condescending crap. But then again, my parents would probably have said the same thing about my generation, and their parents before them.

In any case, The Giver did not disappoint. It is, and will always remain, one of my favorite books of all time.


Supernatural Seventh Grader Saves Spirits and Says “Screw You” to Superficial Pseudo-Friends

17 Jul

Book: Suddenly Supernatural: School Spirit

Origin: Library

Note: This was the first time I’d been to the 42nd Street Children’s Center at the Main Branch of the NY Public Library. It’s super cool and I didn’t even feel weird about perusing all the children’s books and stepping over youngsters curled up on the floor with books in their faces like I sometimes do at the library near my apartment. If you’re into kid lit (and live in NYC) and haven’t been there, go.

A welcomed little side affect of this project has been a renewed love of reading. While I’ve always been an aspiring writer, I’ve never been an avid reader, so to find myself putting off other activities in order to curl up with a book is a thrilling new experience for me.

One of the things I embraced from The Happiness Project was Rubin’s advice to quit being so embarrassed about loving children’s literature. So, after breaking the rules by venturing to the library, I’m now eagerly consuming a stack of Young Adult (YA) novels.

Ever since the end of Harry Potter, I’ve been anxious to read the next great YA series. I tried Twilight, but couldn’t get over my frustration with the lack of personality and strength in the main character. I put it down forever half way through the first book. Now, while sitting patiently on the mile-long wait-list for The Hunger Games, I decided to give Suddenly Supernatural a try, which has garnered some positive reviews across the web.

“The undead are ruining my life. I blame my mother.”

That is the first paragraph of book 1, Suddenly Supernatural: School Spirit. Talk about great promises. Lucky for me, Elizabeth Cody Kimmel keeps her promises. Besides the fact that I like the way Suddenly Supernatural slides off my tongue, Kimmel is a good writer. She’s created characters who are distinct and believable while also building a fluid storyline.

Here’s the premise:
Kat’s mom is a medium. The kind that communicates with ghosts. If that weren’t embarrassing enough for a 7th grader, on her 13th birthday, Kat discovers that she, too, has “the gift”. Unfortunately for her, that gift is threatening to ruin her social life.

Kat has a strong, likable voice and comes across as a relatable every-girl. While she struggles to make friends and come to terms with the occasional unwanted spirit knocking on her door, she also evolves as any main character should. I’m looking forward to more supernatural spirit investigations in the following books.


11 Jul

Book: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

Origin: Borrowed from the neighbors

Ghosts, spirits, the recently deceased and things that go bump in the night are not for the faint of heart, but Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife is hardly hair-raising. Mary Roach is a hopeful skeptic, traveling cross-country and over the ocean to uncover humanity’s attempts at scientifically proving (or disproving) the existence of life after death. Drawing on a long history of scientific and philosophical inquiries, it’s a compelling compilation of our attempts at solving the unsolvable, wrought with humorous interjections by the author.

It seems like Roach has become famous for writing wherever her curiosities take her. An admirable feat, if you ask me. I’m guessing it has something to do with her unique ability to paint less than pleasant topics with colorful humor while still maintaining the objective eye of a curious researcher. She asks the questions we’re all dying to ask, but are too afraid or grossed out to investigate on our own.

Spook is no exception. Part popular science, part personal essay, she covers everything from reincarnation, ectoplasm, hauntings, near-death experiences and more. She even enrolls herself in Medium School. She exposes a long history of failed attempts to cash in at the expense of faithful believers and introduces us to some folks who are impossible to dislike; faults, biases and all. And sprinkled throughout are plenty of fascinating characters doing incredibly convincing research on the matter.

While I’ve seen some complaints across the web about her excessive use of (sometimes irrelevant) footnotes, I found they offered humorous insight into her personal experiences during research. She never claims to write academic science, so you can’t expect the same attention to scientific principals (and boring footnotes) that you might encounter in a science textbook (thank goodness).

If you are even slightly curious about what happens when science tries to uncover the truth about life after death (and prefer a more readable pop sci approach), this book is a must read. Don’t be surprised though if, occasionally, a ghost-stalking duo of quirky guys cast in grainy, green hues pointing homemade gadgets into the night wander through old abandoned buildings in your mind. An unexpected side effect I thoroughly enjoyed.

This Book’s Fate: Return to the neighbors.

Next Up: Suddenly Supernatural: School Spirit.

Happiness: Just Do It

27 Jun

Book: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Origin: Impulse Purchase from the 84th street B&N

One of many books in the “Spend a year doing something and write about it” genre, Gretchen Rubin sets out to research happiness (scientifically, philosophically, practically, spiritually) and apply the principles she learns to her life over the course of 12 months. She documents her experience in The Happiness Project.

Whether or not happiness is a worthy pursuit has been debated time and again, so I won’t go into that here (see also Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America). However, the underlying theme of Rubin’s book is really that making positive behavioral changes can result in greater positive change to your immediate world and can influence you to treat yourself and others better. She also concludes, though, that being happy requires constant hard work and that it’s much easier to be hard and critical (something I believe to be true since lasting joy often requires us to forgo pride and be humble).

She frames her 12 month journey by coming up with some lists: a list of 12 Personal Commandments to follow each day (such as “Be Gretchen”, “Let it go”, “Lighten Up”), twelve months worth of Resolutions (such as “remember love”, “aim higher”, “make time for friends”), and a list of some “Secrets of Adulthood” (important bits of wisdom she’s picked up in life). She also distinguishes a resolution from a goal. As Rubin notes, “you hit a goal, you keep a resolution.” A goal can be accomplished, but a resolution is something you have to “resolve to do every day, forever.” It’s a very important distinction to make, one I hadn’t really thought of before, and especially useful come December 31st. I’ve been doing it all wrong!

I dog-eared a whole bunch of pages in the book with the intention of writing about specific things here, but this is one of those books that is worth reading only if you are into self-help experiments. It’s certainly interesting, if not a bit wordy at times, and she does support her claims with valid research, but it’s not for everyone. The best part of the book for me was that I felt like Rubin was the kind of person I could be friends with. Maybe it’s because she’s also an East Coast girl from the midwest, or maybe it’s because she also likes kid lit and bad music and the transient feeling of superiority when being critical (even if it’s always followed by a twinge of guilt and remorse). It also inspired me to take a harder look at my own behavior. In fact, as I was reading, I found myself spontaneously writing down my own Resolutions and Secrets of Adulthood.

The most important lesson in all of this? Just Do It.

Not to bring back memories of old Nike commercials or anything, but it really is true. My business partner and I are always talking about how we see so many people become successful not because they are the best at what they do, but because they just do it. And they did it before someone else did it. It reminds me of the phrase “50% of success consists in just showing up”. If you really want to change something, then change it already!

The writing down and reviewing of things tends to be a very useful trick to stimulate action. Even Rubin found her most useful tool was her “Resolutions Chart”, a chart she looked at every day which listed each of her resolutions. It’s hard to look your flaws in the face all the time and not want to do something about them (it’s much easier to hide them away and ignore them). I also think the very act of writing something down gives it a certain reality that it didn’t have before.

So, in an effort to start being more open myself (one of my resolutions), I thought I’d share my own lists here:

My Secrets of Adulthood:

  1. Eating real food makes you crave fake food less.
  2. People will be who they are.
  3. Nothing’s the end of the world except the end of the world.
  4. It is better to do it now than wait until a tomorrow that may never come.
  5. It’s not about you.
  6. Some things are worth spending money on.
  7. Knowing the problem you’re trying to solve makes finding the solution easier and prevents you from creating more problems.
  8. Doing the dishes now can prevent an argument later.
  9. Just because someone acts important, doesn’t mean they are.
  10. Feeling healthy and energetic is more important than losing weight.
  11. The past is in the past and that’s where it should stay.
  12. The secret to productivity is being able to accomplish twice as much in half the time so you can spend the afternoon at the park.
  13. The destination isn’t everything.

Know thyself – Truths about me:

  1. I will never know about music like my friends do.
  2. I like what I like and so what?
  3. Sitting by a river always makes me feel good.
  4. I like to fantasize about living on a river boat even though I don’t really want that life.
  5. Infants make me nervous. Children make me smile. Dogs makes me laugh.
  6. I don’t care to keep up with the latest celebrity gossip (I hardly know who most of these people are anyway).
  7. I really do prefer to be awake in the early hours of morning (maybe BECAUSE it happens so rarely).
  8. I unfairly judge others at times.
  9. I can be impulsive. I can also be very calculated.
  10. I generally prefer the company of dogs over the company of people.
  11. I prefer to be in the same room with Eric than in separate rooms.
  12. I have enough friends, but don’t always appreciate them.
  13. I will never be able to read the news on a regular basis. No matter how many times I try.
  14. I start a lot of things and finish few.
  15. I judge a book by it’s cover and so far this method has worked just fine.
  16. I really love midwesterners.

And finally…

My Resolutions:

Open up.

  • Talk first.
  • Share what you love.

Let it go.

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Pause when you need to.

Have more fun.

  • Make time for fetch.
  • Dance in your underwear.
  • Learn something fascinating and useless and share it.
  • Listen to as much Bon Jovi and Black Eyed Peas as you want to!

Remember what you love and feed it well.

  • Make time for family.
  • Be a better friend.
  • Listen to jazz.
  • It’s ok to feel angry. It’s not ok to lash out in anger.

Live now. Not Later. (But be prepared).

  • Take advantage of a beautiful day.
  • Remember your eulogy. What will they say about you?

Connect with others.

  • Practice small talk.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Join a group.
  • Send things to people.
  • Share what you find.

Open your eyes.

  • Appreciate what’s here.
  • Listen to your words.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.

Just do it.

  • Stop avoiding.
  • Build something new.
  • Recognize what’s stopping you. Write it down. Throw it away.

Treat yourself well.

  • Shed your tattered layers.
  • Take your own advice.
  • Know your limits.
  • Use more lemons.

Record good things.

  • Write things down.
  • Make a book of life.

Work smarter. Not harder.

  • Remember the 80/20 rule.
  • Take a break and do something unrelated to work.
  • Sing while you work.

Maybe I’ll write these things on post-its and sprinkle them around the apartment as a reminder to follow through.

I encourage anyone who’s into self-improvement projects to read this and create their own happiness project.

This Book’s Fate: Keep and re-visit in a year.

Next Up: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

The Lightning Thief stole my heart.

25 Jun

Book: The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan
1st in the popular children’s series Percy Jackson & The Olympians

Origin: Impulse Purchase.

I’m a huge fan of Children’s literature. There’s something ultra satisfying about plunging into the epic battle of good vs. evil as seen through the eyes of a pre-teen. The quirky trials and tribulations a child goes through to become self-aware and learn the value of love and friendship and the horrors of real evil. I used to be embarrassed about it. I’m almost 30 and I read books written for 12 year olds. By choice. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to forget about things like what everyone else thinks and focus on my own interests. And darn-it, I love a good pre-teen adventure novel.

So recently, on one perfectly good evening, I met a friend for diner. As we left the restaurant, the sky cracked open and threw up on us. Without having been prepared with an umbrella or even appropriate shoes, we dove into the nearest B&N for cover. And since my bladder is the size of a peanut and since they always put the bathroom in the Children’s Section, well, I couldn’t help but get stuck pacing through the “Young Adult” aisle for 30 minutes. By the time the weather cleared, I had an armful of books and an empty wallet.

I had never heard of Percy Jackson & The Olympians until I saw a preview for “The Lightning Thief”, a Disney movie set to come out this summer (DVD release only it seems . . . hmm). Apparently, the series has been winning the hearts of pre-teens since 2005. I scooped up the first book because I was ready for a new Children’s novel and it seemed popular. It had a whole shelf to itself even! Flipping through a few pages, I decided the writing was decent and the cover art wasn’t totally awful. Really. That’s how my brain works sometimes.

Young Percy (short for Perseus) Jackson is a troubled sixth grader. Diagnosed with ADHD and kicked out of every school he’s ever attended since kindergarten, he’s lost all confidence in himself. Not only that, but mythological gods keep popping up and threatening his life on a regular basis.

A strange series of events lands Percy in a summer camp for kids just like him; Demi-Gods (affectionately called Half-Bloods). He quickly befriends some camp-mates and before long they embark on a dangerous quest to Hade’s underworld; they must find and return Zeus’s stolen Master Lighting Bolt and stop a war. Of course along the way Percy has to confront some deep philosophical questions about good and evil, his family history and where his friends’ loyalties lie.

Clearly Riordan has a deep passion for mythology and uses these books to instill a similar interest in children. I’ve always been a fan of mythology myself (partially why I picked up the book in the first place) and Riordan does a great job giving curious personalities to the gods of Greek myth. I especially liked the image of Ares as a tough biker with a penchant for practical jokes and a hot temper. Or Zeus, in his navy blue pin-striped suit and slicked back hair, sitting stoically next to his brother Poseidon, the laid back surfer wearing Tommy Bahama shorts.

While the story is pretty formulaic (and drops a lot of suspicious “Diet Coke” references), it does have a certain “cant-put-it-down” quality like any good adventure novel should. Around every bend there are new monsters and obstacles to overcome and the characters are certainly lovable and heroic. There’s a big, ugly, mean bully (whose probably harmless in the end), a sidekick best friend, an embarrassed love-struck girl with the inevitable crush, and the more-than-meets-the-eye, older, mysterious role model. The best thing about this book is that everyone has an interesting personal history – being the children of Greek gods and all – and they’re pretty resourceful when it comes to fighting evil (and each other).

The Lightning Thief was a fun summer read and if I were 12, it would probably motivate me to learn more about Greek mythology.

This Book’s Fate: Keep it. It might inspire me to write my own quirky adventure novel. Maybe I’ll grab the next book in the series from the library one of these days.

Up Next: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Magicians: where’s the magic?

23 Jun

Book: “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

Origin: Impulse Purchase. Couldn’t resist strolling into Greenlight Books after a summer lunch with a friend. The cover caught my eye and I thought it might have some potential to be a decent dystopian fantasy/adventure novel.

Brilliant, geeky teenager gets to pursue dreams of becoming a real Magician, doing real Magic, exploring real Magical worlds; with an R-rated twist. Or so I thought.

Quentin Coldwater is your typical, brilliant, magic-loving, angst-ridden teen obsessed with a series of children’s novels. He’s totally dissatisfied with life and constantly searching for the next best thing. Grand opportunities fall in his lap offering brief diversions from total boredom, but of course his hopes for finding happiness in the external world are repeatedly squashed. Why? Probably because he’s looking in all the wrong places. This is classic coming-of-age stuff, with the added wonder of magic tricks and talking animals. Only at the end of it all, I was left feeling confused and dissatisfied.

Once he’s accepted into Brakebills, an exclusive secret college for talented magicians, Quentin finds his cliche circle of friends and waits for an adventure to unfold. While he waits, some briefly entertaining stuff happens at Brakebills and we’re introduced to some curious professors, but don’t assume this is an R-rated Hogwarts. Yes, there’s a lot of sex and drinking and magic-learning and questioning of the meaning of life (magical and otherwise) and lots of dinner parties, but if you’re looking for monsters and heroic adventures, you won’t find many at Brakebills. Not in the literal sense at least. You will come to understand, though, how useful (or useless) an advanced degree in magic really is.

Quentin’s obsession with “Fillory and Further”, a series of Narnia-esque novels from his childhood, leads him to believe that his happiness is stuck in Fillory just waiting for him to find it. Spoiler Alert – However, by the time Grossman finally brings the novel to Fillory, it’s so blatantly clear that Quentin’s thirst for happiness is never going to be quenched that the very existence of Fillory seems forced. It’s difficult for even the best writers to build a convincing world full of cute fluffy bunnies, ninja rodents, alcoholic bears, and talking trees; and Grossman’s attempt left me questioning his decision to go there.

So, the sticky parts that are supposed to hold a story together fall apart from time to time, and there are far too many trite sexual references, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t some wonderfully satisfying bits. Every so often, at unpredictable moments, Grossman paints a scene so vivid and curious, it’s impossible to set the book down.  Spoiler Alert – My absolute favorite part is when the kids turn into geese and fly to Antarctica to spend a semester training for a bare-ass naked run across the arctic tundra. The imagery was brilliant and beautiful. I even had a dream that I, myself, turned into a goose and flew to China on some secret mission. Maybe that’s my own private fantasy.

Ultimately, reading “The Magicians” was like reading several different stories squished together in a hastily made sandwich. Each with its own fantastic potential and juicy morsels, but together a muddled mess on the kitchen counter.

Looks like there’s going to be a sequel released next year, so it remains to be seen whether Quentin will ever be fully relieved of his boredom.

This Book’s Fate: Donate

Up Next: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan