Sunday, April 29, 2012

April Recap

April has been a very successful month for me. I set a goal for myself to read 6 books this month- and I did it! I also started reading the NY Times and cut down on my Facebook time. I'm going to set a slightly less ambitious goal for myself in May- after all, part of April was spent on spring break, and a lot of May will be spent gearing up for concert season- but I'm still going to set a goal. Since reading 168 Hours, I've become much more conscious of my use of time. I used to over-schedule myself. Now I just set modest goals for exercise and writing, sometimes reading, every week or every month. I write them on the whiteboard on my office and keep track of them throughout the month. At the end of the month, I have the satisfaction of looking back and seeing what I've accomplished in my spare time. This is what my whiteboard looks like today:

You may be thinking, "Yes, Leanne, this is all well and good, but when that baby comes, you won't have time for any of that." I disagree. I've read about plenty of women who have children but still keep their sanity and sense of self. Will I have to scale down on my goals? Absolutely. Will I find it more difficult to keep up with my own ambition? No question. But will I give up doing things that make me happy? No. A child deserves a happy mother, and a husband deserves a wife with a sense of herself. During my first trimester, when I didn't feel well enough to exercise, and didn't have the emotional capacity to write, I was miserable. I'm not going to put myself through that again unless it's absolutely necessary. I'm sure my whiteboard will look different in the fall- a lot more scaled-down, a little less crowded- but I'm also sure that I'll be doubly proud, at the end of the month, of the things I accomplished despite late-night feedings and hundreds of diaper changes.

Do any of you set goals for yourself? If so, when do you set them- weekly, monthly, yearly? Do you write them down, or just keep them to yourself? Are your goals overly ambitious, or perhaps not ambitious enough? Do you usually accomplish them in the way you intended, or do the goals change along the way?


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Words from the Younger Sowul

One of the reasons I love reading so passionately is that I firmly believe that books can permanently change your outlook on life. Recently, I've been thinking about the books that had the most impact on me, and I've realized I read most of them between the ages of 9 and 14. I've forgotten many of the books I've read within the past year, but I still think often about things I learned from Anne of Green Gables, the Little House on the Prairie series, or short stories that I read and re-read from the seventh grade English textbook my mom taught from. I admit I remember very little of what I read in my English classes during that time period, except some of the historical novels, like The Endless Steppe and The Trumpeter of Krakow, which expanded my view of world history. (I could make a point here about why it's so much more important to let students read freely instead of forcing their attention to required reading and state test exam questions. That, however, is a post for another day- maybe a day when my students aren't in the midst of yet another exam. Wait, when will that day come?)

One book that has stuck with me for twenty years or more is Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it's a true account of the authors' parents,  Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who raised a dozen children in the 1910s and 1920s, and ran a business in which they taught companies how to run their factories and businesses with extreme efficiency. The book is full of anecdotes about how these bright and creative parents managed their large brood with the same efficiency and assembly-line mentality as their business models, and yet still made room for fun, education, and special time with each child.

My ten-year-old (or possibly younger) brain absorbed many things from this book. I learned that it's possible to be a strict parent, but also know when to break the rules; that all children, even siblings, are incredibly unique individuals; that "efficiency" means doing a job with as little wasted time and motion as possible; that finding the most efficient way to work means more time for happier pursuits; and that every moment is an opportunity for education. Maybe I'm thinking about these lessons so much recently because they're more useful to me now that I'm about to become a parent than they were when I was a kid myself. But I wonder if the lessons are more ingrained, more a part of myself, than they would be if I had read the book this year instead of when I was ten. I think they are. Because of this book's impact, I've spent twenty years thinking about efficiency, seizing educational opportunities, and creative parenting- way more time than I've spent pondering actually being a parent myself. And so I conclude that the books we read as children have much more impact on our worldview than the books we read now.

I hope my son will be a reader. I'll do everything in my power to encourage it, because the gifts that books have brought me have been immeasurable, and the ways they molded my thinking and made me question the world have been invaluable.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Reading the Paper

I have a confession to make. I have never, ever read a newspaper. Not really. When I was a kid, I'd read the comics. When I was a teenager, I'd read the advice and opinion pages (and also the comics). But I never read the actual news. Since I moved out of my parents' house, I've never even bought a newspaper, except for when our engagement announcement was published, and a couple of times when family members were featured in articles or photos. 

There are two reasons for this. One, I dislike our local newspaper's editorial slant. Two, I find experiencing the news, in any format, depressing. I don't watch any news programs except The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (real news, but funny enough not to be depressing) and the CBS Sunday morning show (human interest stories are more palatable). 

But recently, a sequence of events fell into motion that caused me to rethink my newspaper embargo.

First came my frustration with the time I was wasting on Facebook. I'd check it multiple times a day, despite the fact that most of my Facebook friends do not post regularly, and I ended up reading the same posts over and over again. It was an addiction, and it was wasted time, and I hate both of those things, so I cut myself off. Now I only allow myself to check it after 8:00 at night. I guess I wasn't as addicted as I thought, because this simple change hasn't been painful at all. What's more, it opened up a few pockets of free minutes, mostly in the early mornings and at lunchtime. So I decided to replace my Facebook time with something more educational. I started reading CNN and the Huffington Post, but neither of those were completely satisfactory, so one morning I wandered over to the New York Times page. And I made a discovery. 

I love the New York Times!

Actually, what I love is the New York Times app on my iPad. Show me a copy of the actual paper, with its tiny printing and overwhelming assortment of articles, and my eyes glaze over. But on the app, the paper is organized beautifully, the print is a decent size, and they only show the first few lines of each article, so I can choose what to click on and what to ignore. I visit every section and find the articles that interest me. And I already feel like my world of knowledge has expanded. Today I read about a teacher who is challenging a computerized grading system for student exams; how exercise has been proven to increase brainpower in mice; why the travel agent industry is experiencing a resurgence; and a fascinating opinion on the shifting meaning of language and how that relates to the Constitution. And that was just during a 5-minute lunch break!

In fact, the morning after I signed up for the subscription (an offer for an educator's discount had just appeared in my in-box not two days after I reached my limit on free articles) I was offered firm proof that I have been missing out by not reading the news. It was early Sunday morning and I was food shopping at my favorite grocery store. I was planning to go to the gym later, so I had on my gym clothes, and as it happened, my Yankees cap. The man at the fish counter got excited when he saw my hat and wanted to talk about Saturday night's Yankees-Red Sox game. Now I hadn't seen the game, but I had read all about it in the sports section of the Times not an hour before, so I was able to hold up my end of a happy conversation about an amazing comeback and the skills of Nick Swisher. Which means that on my very first morning, the Times saved both my dignity and my Yankees fandom status. 

So if you run into me at a party or other social event and want to small talk, watch out- I know a lot of interesting facts now, and I'm not afraid to use them!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

All the Money in the World

If you had all the money in the world, not literally, but enough to accomplish whatever you wanted, what would you do? How would you live? How would your life be fundamentally different from the way you live it now? What can you do to make some of those dreams into reality, with the resources you currently have?

This is the premise of Laura Vanderkam’s new book, All the Money in the World, the much-anticipated follow-up to 168 Hours, which I blogged about here: 168 Hours

I am very intrigued by Vanderkam; I am a regular visitor (though not a poster) on her site, and of course an avid reader of both her books. She views the world in a fresh way. Though not an “expert” on either time or money, she has theories about both that defy the norm, and uses real-world research to back up her ideas. In this book, she posits that making more money is more liberating and, when done creatively, can be more fun than trying to “cut back”; that the notion of full retirement may not make us all as happy as finding work that we will love doing into our golden years; how little expenses can make a big difference to our daily happiness; and why giving to others should be a priority for our ultimate happiness. 
Vanderkam also provides suggested exercises to do while reading the book, so that we can each think more deeply about how we choose to spend our money. One of these involves looking at your monthly expenses and noting the ones that provide a “high utility function,” the purchases and experiences that you valued most. That can help you prioritize your expenses and discover what makes you happiest, and what matters least. For example, if you find that viewing your receipts from bookstores and coffee shops evoke feelings of contentment, along with a lingering smell of fresh paper and lattes, then that’s not somewhere you should be trying to cut back. Perhaps your cable bill is more expendable, so that you can spend more time in those coffee shops reading those books. Another fun exercise involves figuring out what you’d do if you had a spare $10,000 (assuming that you’ve already taken care of bills, debts and savings). 
While these exercises were interesting, I did find myself wondering how they work for couples. For example, I might feel that the cable bill is downsize-able, but my husband, who loves that our package includes many channels of college football, would consider it a high utility function. So if we need to cut back, which of us gives something up? On the opposite end, making more money almost always corresponds to investing more time, meaning less time to spend with family and friends. That’s another couple issue that can’t be resolved simply by making an individual decision about personal money and time priorities. I wish Vanderkam had spent more time and space exploring the relationship and compromise pieces of these issues. 
Additionally, I think many would find her argument that we can always make more money, often more happily that we can cut back, a bit optimistic. Some people, if they look creatively at their skill set, can find that creating a sideline or teaching a class in their field is both feasible and fun. But not everyone has the same ability or opportunity to market their talents, especially in this ever-changing economy. For a middle-upper class, well-educated person, I think this could be sound advice. But for people struggling under the weight of debt, a weak job market, and poor education, this seems like unrealistic advice. On the other hand, the people in this second category probably know much more about cutting back and making money stretch than the people in the first, so the book isn’t really marketed toward them.
In All the Money..., as in 168 Hours, Vanderkam gives a fresh perspective, and leaves her readers with much to reconsider about their commonly held, sometimes even unconsidered, beliefs about money and time. We all need someone to challenge our understanding of the way the world works sometimes, and Vanderkam takes on that job admirably. Everyone needs to read these books. Spending the time AND money on them will be well worth it- I promise!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Perfect Read

Today I had one of those perfect reading days. I read almost an entire book- about 350 pages of the 400 in the novel- in one sitting. It was glorious.

Here are the factors required for a perfect reading day:

1. An unspecified chunk of time. You can't have any serious obligations to rush off to in the near future. It's best if you don't have to take care of others, or take care of yourself, at all. If it's morning, showering is optional. An understanding family is crucial. (Don't put off feeding the cats, as I did this morning. They will remind you, loudly and relentlessly.)

2. A to-do list that you can blow off. There should be something that gives you pause when you embark on this reading journey. Without a list of things to blow off, the whole exercise will feel much less indulgent. It has to be chores about which you can say, "I'll do that later," knowing you might not get to them today. If you don't, so what? There's always tomorrow.

3. The right book. It would not even occur to you to attempt a perfect reading day if not for the right book. It helps if you've already put your reading toes into this book and wiggled them around, so to speak, so you know if it's a good one. It needs to be sufficiently engaging for a long period of time. Fiction is usually your best bet, though memoir can work as well (as it did for me with Dick Van Dyke's memoir). Though engaging, it can't be anything too heavy or emotionally draining. You have to know that everything will probably work out for the best at the end of the book. Today's book was The Island by Elin Hilderbrand. (I highly recommend most of her books. They are great for people who want to escape to the beach more often than their lives allow.)

4. An exit strategy. When you finish the book, it will be like waking up from a vivid dream into a harsh reality. You will look at the clock and realize the full extent of the hours you "wasted" (though reading should never, ever be considered a waste of time). It's best to have some sort of activity in mind to close out your reading time and restart your normal life. Lying down right where you are and taking a nap is a great plan. So is eating a snack, or searching out the family members you've neglected in your absence.

Other helpful (but not necessary) factors include: 
- A quiet house
- Something sweet to munch on, and/or a cup of tea
- A phone to ignore
- Rain or snow outside, which increases the feeling of smugness
- Some problems or minor annoyances in your life that you'd like to block out for a few hours

I get a few of these every year, and when the factors align in my favor, I take full advantage. I love my perfect reading days (or just mornings, or late nights). I'm cherishing this one, in particular, because I'm fully aware that factors 1 and 2 will become much more difficult once Baby Sowul is born, and that I'll have fewer opportunities to find factor 3. But I know these days will come again. In my life, there will always be time for books.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Update on JK Rowling Book

Extra, extra! Read all about it! J.K. Rowling's new book will be released on September 27, 2012, according to this Huffington Post article. The title of the book is also revealed:

The Casual Vacancy. Sounds like a mystery to me. I'm very, very curious to see how this book will turn out. It looks to be nothing like the Harry Potter series. It's not a fantasy, not set in a child's world. In fact, it seems as grown-up as it gets. A parish council? A small town at war with itself? Clearly, this is set in the world of petty adults. I'm grateful that Rowling has gone in such a wildly different direction. It will be much easier for her readers to be shocked that this writer also penned the Harry Potter series, rather than be disappointed that this writer also penned The Casual Vacancy.

As I predicted in my post Can Rowling Recapture the Magic? Rowling released this information on her newly launched website today. I have to admit, I miss the old website. This one is informative, but it lacks the cluttered-desk graphics of the Harry Potter-centered site. I respect her desire to go in a different direction, but wish she could have kept a link to her old site.

I would be anticipating this book more if it were a Harry Potter book, but I'll still look forward to this new offering from Rowling, whose talents I respect beyond measure. Only problem is, by the time the book comes out, I'll probably need a babysitter just to sit down and read it. Mom? Anyone?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Rise of YA Fiction

The other day, while reading the NY Times online, I stumbled across this brief, interesting article by Patricia McCormick, a young adult fiction author:

The article begins:

If "Harry Potter" made it safe for grown-ups to read kids’ books, "The Hunger Games" has made it cool.

Why are so many adults reading young adult books? No need to page Dr. Freud. This isn’t about the guilty pleasures of communing with one’s inner child. It doesn’t signify a huge baby boomer regression. It isn’t even about nostalgia.

The author goes on to theorize that the rising popularity of young adult fiction among adults is due to the creativity of YA authors. Writers for children and teens are more willing to take risks, mainly because it's so hard to capture and maintain a teenager's interest, especially with all the technological distractions of the age. So a story about twelve teenagers fighting to the death in a simulated environment that's also out to kill them, or a story about vampires and werewolves falling in love- those are risks that will pay off (to the tune of millions for Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer). And somewhere along the way, these creative plots captured the imagination of adult readers as well.

I agree with this theory, but I also think it's a bit unfair. Mainstream adult fiction writers can also, and have also, been endlessly creative. What about Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah's Key, who intercut a WWII story about a girl forced to leave her brother locked in a cupboard to escape the Nazis with a present-day story about a woman desperate to find roots for her family? What about Chris Bohjalian's novel Trans-Sister Radio, in which a woman falls in love with a man, who feels he should have been born a woman, undergoes a sex-change operation, and winds up with her lover's ex-husband? What about Meg Cabot, who writes many of her adult novels in the same format as her YA novels- via journal entries, emails and texts? And does anyone think that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy for children?

I like a creative, risk-taking story as much as anyone, and it doesn't much matter to me what section of the library I find it in. But I do think the rise of YA fiction raises an interesting point to adult fiction authors, because when those young adults start shopping in our section, what are they going to be looking for? Will the more subtle literary novel be pushed aside for the more wild romps of futuristic adventure and beautiful-people sex? Or does the audience mature with its reading material? What we should be marketing toward? And should a writer even consider that when she puts her pen to the page?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

I've Got Your Number

Vacation week merits a light, fun book to read. I couldn't have picked a better one than this:

I've always loved Sophie Kinsella's books. I think she's one of the best women's fiction writers out there. Her heroines are strong, ethical women who are also witty, quirky and more intelligent than they give themselves credit for. Becky Bloomwood of the Shopaholic books is the perfect example. Though she never is able to get in sync with the financial world of Luke, her paramour, her curiosity and understanding of human nature helps her solve crises for him and his company. Meanwhile, her shopping addiction and light-handed credit card spending gets her into huge messes, but she's always able to get out of them with some soul searching and a bit of ingenuity. And all along she treats the reader to funny observations and crazy justifications that somehow lead to her finding the answers.

Poppy Wyatt, the heroine of I've Got Your Number, is just as endearing as Becky Bloomwood. The book starts days before her wedding with her panicking over losing the emerald engagement ring that has been in her fiancé Magnus's family for generations. While frantically searching an empty hotel ballroom, still addled from a champagne lunch, her phone is also stolen from her. Now she has no engagement ring and no phone number to leave with the hotel to contact her if they find it. Miracle of miracles, while pacing the lobby, she finds a phone in a trash bin. She picks it up and starts using it, texting her friends the new number and giving it out to all the hotel personnel. Moments later, however, the phone rings and she is introduced to Sam Roxton, who claims to be the boss of the owner of the phone, his personal assistant. Poppy, desperate to keep the phone that's now a lifeline to her lost ring, does him a favor and then persuades him to let her hold onto the phone until her ring is found. She agrees to act in his personal assistant's place in the meantime, forwarding him all the emails and texts that belong to him and his company. As they continue to share an in-box, Poppy becomes deeply involved both in Sam's life and in his company's most recent scandal. Meanwhile, her ring is found, but she discovers a shocking secret about her fiancé that leaves her doubting her own future.

Besides her wonderful characters, the thing I like best about Kinsella's books is how she's able to keep tension strong from beginning to end. Like a good mystery writer, she lays her clues and surprises out, chapter by chapter, keeping the reader intrigued and, incidentally, unable to put her book down. I finished this one in just a few days, the last half in one fell swoop, because I just couldn't wait to find out what happened to Poppy, Magnus and Sam. I know all of you will enjoy this book as well. Yes, it's women's fiction, yes, it's fun and light, but it's also great writing!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rescue: A Puzzle

I love Anita Shreve. She writes the way I want to write: with simple language but poignant description, themes of family and relationships, and a tug-at-your-heartstrings quality. This most recent of her books had all of these things, and yet I found something lacking.

The story follows Peter Webster, known only as Webster, from his days as a young paramedic to his life twenty years later. Fresh off his training, one dark night, Webster rescues a young woman from a car wreck. The woman has been drinking, and is unconscious. Something about her intrigues Webster, so he visits her in the hospital when she wakes, and after she's released, tracks her to her temporary home. Sheila had been driving from Boston to New York to escape an abusive cop boyfriend, stopping at bars along the way, and wrecked her car in the small town of Rescue in rural Vermont. Sheila is not like anyone Webster has ever met. She is tough, sassy, dangerous. In a short space of time, he falls for her completely. The two are just beginning their love affair when they discover Sheila is pregnant. They get married, move into a cheap apartment, and a few months later, their daughter Rowan is born. All is well for awhile. Sheila loves her daughter, loves Webster, and seems happy. But after awhile, she starts drinking again. Webster finds bottles hidden all over the apartment. He forces her to go to AA, but it doesn't take. One night, Webster gets a rescue call for what turns out to be Sheila smashing her car again, drunk driving with Rowan in the backseat. Fortunately, neither mother nor daughter is fatally wounded, but it's the last straw for Webster, and he forces Sheila to leave town before she is arrested. He takes charge of his daughter's upbringing alone, never expecting or hoping to see his wife again. 

Years later, Webster still lives with his daughter in Rescue in his parents' old house, watching her navigate the end of her senior year of high school. Rowan has always been a great kid- a strong student with good friends, a talented softball player, a loving relationship with her father, and until they passed away, her grandparents. But recently Rowan has become troubled, fatalistic. She begins drinking at parties, taking huge risks, letting her grades drop to the point of losing her acceptance to college. Webster doesn't know what to do. He wasn't able to keep Sheila from drinking all those years ago, and he's desperate not to let Rowan go the same way. He reaches out to the only person he thinks might be able to help: Sheila herself.

Obviously, it's an interesting story, and it's handled with the typical Shreve sensibility about relationships and ability to show complex emotion with a sensitive touch. The characters are well-formed and evoke both compassion and exasperation in the reader. The descriptions are pitch-perfect: enough to picture the scene clearly, but not so much as to leave nothing to the imagination. In short, it's an excellently-wrtiten novel, and yet something bothered me about it. I'm still not sure what that is. It bothers me that it bothers me, if you know what I mean. After thinking about a book for a few days, I can usually come up with a definite opinion and back it up with examples. That's why I have this blog in the first place, to share those insights. But this book has left me feeling dissatisfied without apparent reason. I'll keep thinking about it and if I figure out the source of my discomfort, I'll let you know. 

If anyone else read or will read this book, please comment below and let me know what you thought. Maybe I just need a good discussion to help me see what's going on with this one. Or maybe it's time to start a book club!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Catching Mistakes

I'm pretty sure it's the "English teacher's daughter" in me, but I love catching errors in books. Not grammatical errors, but plot errors- little things like a mistaken order of events, recounted; the wrong character labeled with the wrong action or characteristic; or the re-description of a room with something in the wrong place. It's a rare occurrence, something I usually don't catch until a second read-through, or a later novel in a series (like the Bride Quartet Series I recently blogged about). But when I do catch them, I feel a little spike of pleasure. I think about how many read-throughs the author, his/her editor, and other publishing house workers went through without catching the mistake. I know from experience how hard it is to edit one's own work, and how often I miss things in final read-throughs. But that's why I have other people read my work. I hope that if I ever publish anything, I'll have a team of people who will watch my back to make sure that no little smart-ass reader like me can catch mistakes.

Short post tonight, because I'm on vacation this week. Lots of books to read, so stay tuned for more posts later in the week!