Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Books that Blew Our Minds: Elle Ewok

There a certain books you read in life that really affect you and stick with you over the years. Perhaps it was the time in your life you read them, or maybe they actually taught you something about the world. Maybe you don't even know why that affected you so much. I've asked SLYBC members to share the books that "blew your mind" over the years.

Books that Blew Elle Ewok's Mind (why does that sound dirty?):


My Brother Sam is Dead, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (1976)

I read My Brother Sam is Dead at a very young age even though is technically fits in the "young adult" cateogry. Perhaps I was too young to read it because it affected me probably more than any book I have ever read in my life. It was the first time I had ever read a story that didn't have a happy ending. It was the first story I read where something horrible happened to a good person. It was the first story I ever read that included death. Up until reading this book it had not occured to me that the world could be a cruel and senseless place. It was devastating. I remember being physically nauseous I was so upset. I read this book 25 years ago so I can't say whether or not it is a good book - just that I will never forget how much it affected me.


Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls (1961)

I have never cried so hard in my entire life than when reading the end of this book. I remember exactly where I was, I remember the color of the bedspread I was laying on even though it was 20 years ago at least. My love for animals, I feel, is one of my defining characteristics and Where the Red Fern Grows had a big part in propelling that lifelong devotion.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)

I have yet to meet a female (woman or girl) who does not LOVE this book. I was 14 and at choir/music camp when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In any free moment I could find, I would race back to my dorm room to read this 528 page perfect novel. This IS the coming of age story for girls and it is fabulous. It was the first book I read that showed me what a great novel can accomplish as it relates to character development and describing interpersonal realtionships. A book to be adored.


Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

I read Crime and Punishment my senior year in high school as it was part of my English curriculum. We read many great works that year but Crime and Punishment took the cake. It also spearheaded my deep devotion and obsession with Classic Russian Literature which consumed about 4 years of my life and still has a significant hold over my mind and heart. It is probably why I ended up marrying a man of Russian descent in the Russian Orthodox Church! Maybe not ;) Crime and Punishment was the first time I realized how truly significant, profound and monumental a novel could be (although I must confess I didn't love the end). Nevertheless, it will always hold an extremely special place in my heart.


The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937-1949)

I read The Hobbit is grade school and didn't like it so I never bothered with Lord of the Rings until I was in college. My mistake. The Lord of the Rings is absolute perfection. It is my desert island book. Not only is its scope mind-blowing (Tolkien created actual languages for God's Sake!) but its themes of courage, friendship and sacrifice are inspiring to all people of all times, ages and cultures. It is the perfect adventure fairy tale. I literally get goose-bumps just thinking about it. My husband and I named our cat after a character in The Lord of the Rings!  (Gimli). I have been a fantasy freak ever since reading this book/s.


Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon (1991)

One of my law school professors was an adjunct from Chicago who was an Assistant United States Attorney. This book was on his "recommended but not mandatory" list of course materials. Homicide describes the year Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon spent with the detectives of the Baltimore Police Department homicide squad. It was later turned into a tv series. I read the book because my Grandfather was a homicide detective in NYC and I idolized him right up until he died when I was 14. I thought this book would let me in on what his life and work was like. I wasn't expecting much though. I remember this book because I had never been so pleasantly surprised by a book before. To say I loved Homicide would be an understatement. Homicide is probably the best non-fiction book I have ever read. It was dramatic, suspenseful, horrifying, inspiring and even incredibly funny. This book included some of the most disturbing things I have ever read along with some of the funniest things I have ever read. It basically perfectly reflects the juxtaposition of how horrible, wonderful, hilarious, disgusting and ridiculous life can be.


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)

This is the book I wish I had written. A grand tale full of adventure and myserty and dark magic written with such artistry that it makes me want to cry. To me, at the time I read it, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was the perfect combination of imaginative story-telling and perfect writing. Although this book is over 1,000 pages I literally made my self slow down while reading it because it made me sad when I realized it was coming to the end. I have recommended this book to everyone and it seems no one loves it as much as I do but I don't care. This book is absolute perfection in my mind and it is my dream-fantasy in life to one day write something comparable.


Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)

I have been Dan Simmons' book-slave ever since reading Hyperion. I will literally buy anything this man writes for giving me this book. Hyperion was the first science ficiton book I ever read which is amazing because I am such a fantasy dork and the genres are so closely related. That said, Hyperion really affected me because it was the first time the power of someone else's imagination really knocked my socks off. I used to think I had a good imagination. Not so much anymore after reading Hyperion. I was literally in awe of the originality and cleverness of this book. It was also profound and moving. Hyperion is horror, science-fiction and fantasy rolled into one that makes meaningful commentary on the horrible-beauty of life.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I was psyched when BeezusKiddo chose The Night Circus as our next book in our non-SLYBC Book Club. I LOVE stories about dueling Victorian-Era magicians. Yes - there are numerous books and movies on this topic (e.g. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; and The Prestige etc)

The Night Circus is about two magicians who are bound to compete against one another in a magical contest created by elder magicians that they neither understand nor really care about. Chosen as children, one maintians natural magical talents while the other is taught to perform magic. The stage for the duel is a magical mystery circus that operates only at night and has mind-blowing magical attractions. The magicians duel by trying to outdo one another with circus attractions. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the magicians fall in love. As such, their contributions to the circus mainly become love-tributes to one another.

I could not help but compare The Night Circus to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell as they are both about dueling victorian-age magicians.  Obviously, The Night Circus suffered by the comparision. It simply cannot hold a candle to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. That said, it is not a fair comparison because Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a goddamn literally masterpiece. While Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell made me want to shave my head and join a convent so I could devote my life to writing something half as good, The Night Circus made me want to eat a caramel apple and go to a carvnival. One is serious and signficant literature while and the other is a lovely story. That's not to say The Night Circus is not good, however. It is very good for what it is.

The Night Circus doesn't provide much in the way of character development or plot line. While the premise of the book is certainly clever there is no driving narrative. There can't be as there really is no conflict. No one seems to care that much about the "Duel". At all. Furthermore, the characters were undeveloped and one-dimensional. I could care less about any of the characters and what happened to them. That's okay though because this book is about stunning and vivid descriptions of magical feats - and that is enough. The circus is the main and only true character in The Night Circus. The attractions at the circus were imaginative and described beautifully. I was perfectly content to travel through the circus tents and "observe" even without a real plot line or any notable character development. Outside of the circus, the book focuses on elaborate descriptions of the victorian era clothing and food and dinner parties. Yes, it sounds boring and superficial but everything is described so well I didn't care.

Obviously to enjoy this book you have to make peace with the fact that the magical individuals use their extraordinary abilities to make a really cool circus rather than....oh I don't know... curing cancer, or flying or world domination. But I was content to ignore this glaring absurdity and enjoy the circus.

I enjoyed The Night Circus very much but it certainly is not for everyone. My husband would never forgive me if I told him to read this book for example. Somehow I doubt he would enjoy reading about victorian party dresses and exotic flavored creme brulee.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2003)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 glorious homemade pierogies (almost good enough to be 5, but not quite)

Review: I had never heard about this book before, and then three separate people recommended The Devil in the White City to me in the space of two days. I needed to see what I was missing.

Larson tirelessly researched turn-of-the-century Chicago, in this nonfiction work that simultaneously explores the path to the creation of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, as well as traces the mystery of a serial killer, H. H. Holmes, feeding on the crowds the fair attracts. This book reads like fiction and is very engaging. I appreciate that Larson included endnotes, with an epilogue inviting the reader to personally explore the sources.

Larson alternates skilfully between the two storylines, it never feels choppy or uneven. Larson took great pains to give the reader the true feel of Holmes' personality. Holmes' most distinctive and disturbing traits were his chilling blue eyes and cool demeanor. The description the first few times around was effective. However, Larson repeats this description every time Holmes makes a new acquaintance, and after a while it is tiresome. Although this is a serial killer book, it's not frightening. Actually, I found the storyline about the construction of the fair, the tight deadlines, and its looming failure to be very stressful, and create much more of an impression.


Larson explained how he used Truman Capote's In Cold Blood as an inspiration for his work. In Cold Blood is one of my favorite books. Devil in the White City can't stand up to the poetry of Capote's language or the atmosphere Capote creates, but if you're a fan of In Cold Blood, you will likely find this book enjoyable.

During and after reading Devil in the White City, I've been thinking about the condition of America at the time of the World's Fair. A fair like this simply could never happen again. Oh, we could easily put on an enormous exposition, however, the world was a much larger place (so to speak) then. We are no longer small town bumpkins who revel in wonder at cowboys or bellydancers. Between National Geographic and the internet, we have access to everything. There is nothing left to revel at anymore.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter (2010)

Reviewer: BeezusKiddo

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: I picked up this book during an insane period of work. I was overburdened and exhausted, and like usual, none of my stress management techniques were working. (Honestly: the techniques I try hardly ever work, I need to find some new techniques). I knew that I'm not the only running-crazy working mom out there, somebody must have done it before and done it better, and written a book about it...right?

Bourg Carter's book isn't a magic bullet, but it will get you pointed in the right direction. In addition to the obvious causes of stress, she points out smaller subtle things, that you may actually have control over, that may be increasing stress without your awareness. She explains why traditional stress management techniques like deep breathing or yoga are not necessarily going to be helpful for high achievers, and why they may even increase stress.

For those in the true depths of burnout, Bourg Carter provides a guide to overcoming it, and starting to get your life back on track. I feel like this book targets women who are overachieving at a level or two above me (CEO's with multiple children, for example), but there was a lot in it that was extremely insightful and useful even for me, a baby-overachiever.

This book is best to read at a time when you're not completely overwhelmed. Overcoming stress and burnout involves a certain level of decisionmaking. You will have to decide that you want to tackle the problem head on, this book cannot fix it for you. You may have to set certain boundaries, which may be uncomfortable. I know that in periods of acute stress, all I want is a magic remedy, and I would probably become frustrated with this book. A lot of the proposed solutions are things I've heard before (and so has every other high achieving woman), but they're discussed with new insight. Even though I picked the book up when everything was absolutely crazy, I didn't get around to reading it until things died down a little bit. If I were reading this in a period of high stress, I'd be frustrated (1) that I'd heard of a lot of the proposed solutions before, and (2) they hadn't worked for me before, so how is this book possibly going to help me? Reading the book in a period of lesser stress helped me appreciate the fresh insight Bourg Carter contributes, and will enable me to better implement some of her suggestions into my life.

My favorite part in the book is Bourg Carter's short discussion on balance. She explains that treating "balance" as a work/life formula that is uniform across all women, and is achievable, serves only to cause more stress and frustration. Striving toward a balance formula that doesn't work for you is never going to help:  

Adjust your thinking. Don't view it in terms of all-or-none. Get whatever balance you can get in your life and be happy about it. You also have to decide what the right balance is for you. Who said that balance had to be 50/50, with half of your life devoted to work and the other half to home and family? No one. If 50/50 is best for you, try to get as close to it as possible, knowing that you won't succeed all the time, or maybe any of the time. In fact, some days, you may not even come close. But you're doing he best you can, and you should reward yourself for the effort. If 75/25 fits better in your world, then that's what you should strive for. Don't let balance define you. You define balance based on who you are, how you live, and what you want.

You would get the best use out of this book if you keep it around as a reference guide, picking it up now and then for a quick refresher on signs of burnout, stress management techniques, etc. If nothing else, the book has immense value by showing the reader that she's not alone and that burnout is not a personal failure. Burnout is a creation of larger institutional and cultural problems, but those larger problems aren't going to change overnight, so Bourg Carter helps the reader work through her side of things as best she can.

Word to the wise-- I read a large chunk of this book right before bed one evening. This resulted in: (1) A nightmare that I was pregnant, (2) After falling back asleep from the nightmare, a dream about getting ready for work, (3) waking up at 6am on a Saturday, confused about why my alarm didn't go off, and (4) finally falling back asleep around 8am, only to have a dream that I had to conduct a deposition about a bunch of documents, except I forgot to print the documents out, was wearing sweats instead of a suit, and went to the wrong office building...and somewhere in this dream I also managed to stop by the grocery store and pick up a huge multipack of those Gerber turkey sticks that Baby Beez loves (note to self: need to go to the grocery store, we are out of turkey sticks). This book was great and I highly recommend it, but pick something else for a bedtime story.