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Category Archives: read

Off Season, Still Prime

Board Stiff, P'town

Board Stiff, P’town

A day trip to the Outer Cape this week is significantly differently than one in prime tourist season. No, there were no half-naked people shopping or musicians in nooks and crannies…but it was, nonetheless, a satisfying jaunt.

Town Hall Front Door

Town Hall Front Door

The drive from Falmouth to P’town took only 80 minutes—no traffic. We got a parking space easily, just off Commercial Street. Needless to say, there were no crowds.

Commercial Street

Commercial Street

Most stores were closed for the season, so instead of looking for merchandise, I scoped out the architecture, the sky and the sea. What went unnoticed amongst the throngs had a chance to be in the February spotlight.

P'town East Side

P’town East Side

The beaches were empty, quiet and peaceful. The reflecting light was addictive. It’s time like this I wish I could paint. While hunting for an open restaurant, we stumbled upon two fabulous garage door paintings… too bad we don’t have a garage at the Cape! IMG_2065

Who cares about finding a restaurant when you find these two beauties?

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The homes of all year residents stood out with winter window boxes, icy wreaths and recycling/trash tied in neat bundles, almost like presents. Tradesmen trucks were abundant as off-season renovations were underway. It was very, very quiet.

Marconi Cold

Marconi Cold

Our next stop was Marconi Station and the Great Atlantic Cedar Swamp in Wellfleet. This is one of our all time favorites during the warmer months, and we had never been there in winter. It was sound asleep, and trees sounded like old bones creaking.

Crisp Ruffled Edge

Crisp Ruffled Edge

The wind had a sharp, cold edge, and the crashing waves left a white ruffle as far as the eye could see down the shoreline. A brisk walk ended up being very brisk and very short. My face hurt from the cold.

Outdoors and Indoors

Outdoors and Indoors

The scenic route home found us meandering on Route 6A instead of the more trafficked highway. There was time to scout out the geography as well as local commerce.  One previously overlooked gem in Yarmouth Port is Parnassus Book Service, a large, used bookstore, staffed by very smart, well-read folks. More than sixty years ago, the building had been a general store; now, it’s stacked from floor to decorative ceiling with the most eclectic selection of titles.

Words Floor to Ceiling

Words Floor to Ceiling

Neither my husband nor myself could figure out how these books were organized, but that really didn’t matter. To be in the presence of all these pages was a gift. We bought two books: Louise Hall Tharp’s Mrs. Jack (a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner) and  The Great Rehearsal by Carl Van Doren(The story of the making and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States). When I’m in a unique store that’s new to me, I always ask, “What should I not leave without buying here today?” I do this in cheese shops, wine and yarns stores and am seldom disappointed. These were the two books I was told I had to get— I’ll start them next week. I’ll go back to Parnassus again and again and again.  What a find!

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Hunger finally set in as it neared 2 pm. We passed restaurant called “The Optimist Café”—my kind of place—but with no cars in the parking lot, I turned pessimist.

Then we found two cafes open in Barnstable. One was a fancier restaurant with more than its share of upscale cars in the lot. The other was The Blue Plate Diner. The diner was friendly, the menu was tempting, service was terrific, and I just wish I had room for the homemade blueberry pie. I’m so glad that we stopped there.

Yummy find

Yummy find

I guess this trip taught me that slowing down and having less to distract me has its advantages. This same route in July would have yielded a very different experience. Both have merit and both are needed. It’s sort of a ying/yang rhythm that keeps one in balance.  I can’t wait to see it all again in the Spring.

Booking and Cooking

Every once in a while, a book from the library falls into my hands, I burn through it, and NEED to go out and buy my own copy. That happened twice this month—and both books are worth talking about.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School came on my radar screen in conjunction with a town-wide reading of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. To be honest, I was afraid TKCCS was going to be a mandate to eat organic radishes written by someone extremely knowledgeable, like Al Gore’s housekeeper. This was, thankfully, not the case.

Instead, I found a very well written, engaging memoir/cooking manual that taught me dozens of cooking lessons. The author, Kathleen Flinn, is a Cordon Bleu graduate who embarks on a quest to teach nine novice cooks how to make delicious, healthy, simple and rewarding meals. Each chapter covers a specific lesson, but equally shares the foodie journey of the nine students and their passionate teacher.

I’ve been cooking for almost fifty years, and I learned something new and worthwhile in each chapter. There are new spice combinations to experiment with, ways to do away with processed foods and replace them with tastier, fresh possibilities, and how to do so fearlessly. I also appreciate seeing how Flinn, as a teacher, met the needs of her very diversified class. Some were afraid to cook, some were discouraged because of past failures, some think they were too busy to bother. All types move forward throughout this book. At first, I started to copy the recipes I wanted to try… then I realized that I was transcribing the book and better buy a copy of my own. I think I’ll make it a point to “cook my way” through this book, one recipe at a time. Maybe two per week—sounds like a plan. Go buy the book, please. You’ll love it.

The next book that I devoured is a thin, lean, but very rich compilation of Ernest Hemingway’s opinions about writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips. Again, I started with a library copy and kept wanting to highlight and write in the margins. I’d come across astute paragraphs and read them aloud to my husband only to realize that I was reading the whole text to him, one passage after another.

Hemingway shows what it’s like inside his head. He lets us in on the process and shares the joy as well as the tribulations. The first chapter starts off with the following quotation from a letter to Mrs. Paul Pfeiffer, 1933: “I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world—or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it out thin.”

And that is exactly what he does with his writing on writing. We get these unadulterated gems that make us think and help us write. There is a freshness and authenticity in his words that I find addictive. He reminds me to cut back any unnecessary baggage. I’m especially fond of this passage from George Plimpton’s The Paris Review interview: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

As an English professor, I used to write “Do you need this…Is it fluff?” in the margins of many students’ papers. I’m forced to ask myself if every word is working effectively for me. This paragraph alone survived the pruning of ten words.

I’ve always believed that writing is “re-writing” and a vehicle for thinking. Hemingway says it so well in a letter to L.H. Brague, Jr., 1959: “I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” This famous author reiterates that writing is simultaneously joy and hard work.

Ernest Hemingway On Writing is a book that I want to have on my shelf and be able to pick up, browse through for inspiration, and come back to again and again. I suggest you do the same.

Here’s the latest on my reading for this New Year.

I succeeded in reading five books so far in January:

Art of Hearing Heartbeats

SHED

Hemingway On Writing

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Candy Freak (in progress).

My goal for February is five more:

The Dark Vinegard (book group book)

Finish In Sunlight and In Shadow

The Burgess Boys new Elizabeth Strout book advanced copy 🙂

and two more titles to be pulled from the mountain motherload of books in my den—all waiting patiently.

Let me know what you’re reading and what you think of it.

12 Days into 2013

Two and a half books are read so far this year and they’re all quite different. The best, by far is Julie Morgenstern’s SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life. It’s focus is not only on decluttering and simplifying, but adding some exploration about why the bad habits begin in the first place and are so difficult to kick. Unlike most books of this type, it does more than demand that you throw things out. I found it useful, and it’s in line with my goal of working toward creative simplicity. I also had the good sense to borrow it from the library and return it on time. No clutter on the bookshelves.

Deadbeat, not heartbeat

Deadbeat, not heartbeat

The book selection for my book group this month was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. It’s not often that I really don’t like a book– and this is one of those times. Honestly, if I didn’t need to read it for my group, I would have dropped it after page twenty. Disappointing…melodramatic… didn’t strike a chord, not even a note with me. It was not believable and didn’t make me care enough to embrace what was suppose to be magical. I didn’t care about the characters; they weren’t authentic. The maudlin theme of “love conquers all” was a bore. The plot was dependent upon actions that I just didn’t buy into. Get the point… I didn’t like it and don’t recommend it.

On the other hand, I’m totally engaged in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Satan in Goray. Each sentence pulls me further into his world. It’s so well written; I often stop and re-read sentences because they are so striking. This book was a gift from one of my most outstanding students, Miki, and he was absolutely right… I love this book and can’t wait to read the next one he gave me.

Satan in Goray

Satan in Goray

Last on my review list is book connected to the What’s Falmouth Reading? initiative. The focus is on local grown and make your own food. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School is a memoir/cookbook written by Kathleen Flinn. Her modus operandi is to find folks in the grocery store with carts full of processed, unhealthy food and to teach them some basic culinary skills that change the way they eat. It’s not an astounding concept– Emeril Lagasse used to do something similar on his TV show. The information is not earth shaking, but I do find it interesting how she engages each of her students and how she teaches them new skills. It’s a good book to skim and glaze over. The primary book for this town wide project is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. That’s on my list for next month.

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My game plan for the month of January is to read at least a book a week. I’m enjoying the pace and the extended time with my nose in a book. I just got an advanced copy of Elizabeth Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, and after teaching Olive Kitteridge, I’m really curious to read her latest work. And then there’s my beloved Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and In Shadow. I’m reading it in “teaspoon fulls” because I don’t want it to end. Love it, love it, love it.

Bella and The Burgess Boys

Bella and The Burgess Boys

One of the side effects of my increase in book time is that I’m spending less time doing stupid things on line… like checking my e-mail a zillion times or revisiting my bookmarked sites every ten minutes. Gotta go…. time to check out the Winter Farmer’s Market at Mahoney’s.

TMI TMI TMI

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Why do I know that Kim Kardashian is pregnant and going to workout in see through pants?  Why would I want to see through Kim’s pants?

And how about the mother who went public with the rules she laid down for her thirteen year-old son’s use of a cell phone? Do I care? How does the son feel about the public announcement of family laws?

There’s more… the mother of an autistic child writes a very public essay detailing the challenging aspects of her teenager’s condition, complete with information that is sure to scar the autistic teen forever.

And then there’s the person, you know who I mean, who sends a photocopied Christmas letter outlining every burp, sneeze, hiccup and prize connected to every member of the family that you never see. One dysfunctional correspondent included the meds her children were on and the therapists each were seeing. TMI TMI TMI

Nothing is private any more. It’s not like Big Brother or Big Google is divulging this information. The individuals, themselves, are violating their own privacy and that of their family members quite flagrantly. True, talentless Kim Kardashian needs to grease the publicity machine daily in order to stay in the headlines—maybe that’s her business and part of her marketing plan. I understand that, but think it’s awfully pathetic that there’s an audience wanting to see her in her latest display of anything formerly private. Reality TV proves that absolutely nothing is sacred or personal anymore.

We learned when Bethany’s husband was horny and when Bethany had a headache; now we know they’re getting divorced and he’s drinking coffee alone in café wearing his wedding band. Ugh!

The mom of the autistic teen undoubtedly thought she was doing a good deed by giving strangers insight into life with autism. But this kid’s life is forever altered by the mom’s tell-all. Who is going to befriend this kid in school or hire him for a part time job? Doors are closed for this poor teen, and the article could have been written without identifying the parent or child… but it wasn’t. I found the article to be interesting and informative, but not worth the cost to the child.

Likewise the mom with the cell phone rules for her 13 year old. Honestly, how do you think that son is being treated in school now that his mom has made their family phone rules a public announcement? There’s also nothing so incredibly meaningful about her rules that merited the publicity. It’s the kind of information that used to be discussed within the family and agreements made based on trust.

Where does one draw the line between public and private? Facebook’s latest prompts want folks to “share” their feelings… “How’s it going, Diane?” I have this rebellious urge to type…”Go screw, none of your business.” But that would only serve as my status and wouldn’t accomplish what I wanted. And many Facebookers  divulge far too much information on a daily basis. What’s private to some is glorious public fodder for others. My statuses tend to focus on what I’m reading, knitting, my community and, yes, some pictures of my cat. I’m sure someone reads these posts and thinks—what blather—who cares. Well, they can easily “defriend” me.

I’m more self-conscious about what I write in my blog. Am I, too, blurring the line between public and private. My quest for a more simple, healthy, well-balanced life is something I blog about. I’m cautious about the unintended consequences of the written word escaping my control and spreading across the web. I don’t share anything except my own news and my own thoughts—so I can make the disclaimer that “no family members, animals or other living beings were hurt in the creation of this writing.” But the question about what should remain private still haunts me. Growing up,  there was information that was kept under the roof and processed by family only. It worked. It was a safe environment to bear one’s soul. We problem-solved around the kitchen table, not in a public forum.

I do think individuals lose a piece of themselves when they expose all to the public eye. It’s giving up too much of one’s “self” to an audience that doesn’t deserve it or even care about it most of them time. I think there’s value in sharing news and working through issues with people you care about and trust. Broadcasting private issues in very public arenas subtracts far more than it adds, in my humble opinion. I feel like a voyeur looking at something not so attractive and want to turn away.

 

2013: Chunk it

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Surf Drive New Year's Eve

Surf Drive New Year’s Eve

Sorry to disappoint you, but there won’t be a long list of witty New Year’s resolutions for 2013. The big Catholic school master list with master rules just isn’t my style; it never really worked for me.

I’m a firm believer in “chunking” a huge task into bite size pieces, so that’s what I’m going to do with my resolutions. Instead of making a yearlong commitment to be perfect, I’m going to look at what I really want and possibly might really be able to accomplish just in the month of January. At the end of the month I’ll reevaluate and take it from there. I’m capable, right???

So, here’s the game plan for January:

  1. Exercise every single day; our 45 minute brisk walk has been an antidote to a host of problems. If the weather is truly (note the word  “true” is in truly) inclement, the elliptical and several interesting podcasts are waiting for me.
  2. Buy nothing except essentials food, medical stuff, utilities. Less is more, and abide by the “Need it, Use it, Love it” rule. Minimalism rocks.
  3. Do something creative every single day.
  4. Do some random act of kindness every single day.
  5. Read a book a week:  on the schedule are

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (Jan-Phillip Sendker),

Satan in Goray (Singer),

Candy Freak (Almond),

In Sunlight and In Shadow (Helprin)

  1. Knit one fabulous warm sweater for me
  2. Knit one pair of mittens and socks for me
  3. Knit one heavy weight shawl for me. (Notice a trend here…)
  4. Don’t take anything personally—behave like Teflon, nothing sticks.
  5. De-clutter my studio (Ok, at least begin the process).
  6. Reevaluate this process in late January and make a plan for February.
  7. Is this a short list? (Yes, last year’s was 174. Really, no kidding, sick))

Wish me luck, and I wish you the best year ever!  Happy 2013.

 

 

 

Christmas Memories

I love Christmas. Making the presents, wrapping them, putting them under the tree that is loaded with ornaments that track our family’s history—it makes me obnoxiously happy. We’re together to relax, celebrate, retell stories, and laugh.

Each year we try not to overdo the excessive buying aspect of the celebration. We don’t always succeed, but this year we’re behaving well. Each present is something we thought about before slapping down the credit card or clicking the “submit” button online. There’s hand knitted socks, hats, blanket, shawls and mittens; the folks who wanted hats, got hats—I didn’t mess around. Each knitted project also served a purpose for me; I made it a point to learn something from each present. Perhaps it was a new technique, a new yarn, a new design… each one kept me engaged and taught me something in addition to the joy of giving.

If the presents under the tree aren’t made of fiber, they’re probably books. Throughout the year, I keep my eyes open for titles that I think my loved ones might enjoy. Could be a book of walking tours through their new neighborhood or cookbooks that are unusual or something they might have mentioned, but haven’t bought for themselves. I like how this practice keeps Christmas alive throughout the year.

One of the most fun parts of the celebration is stuffing everybody’s stocking with little goodies: a favorite candy (not a whole bag!), some cool spices from Trader Joe’s, a handmade bar of soap or moisturizer and something funny that they’re not expecting (no clues given here now!) We’ve got the same stockings that the kids had growing up—and David’s stocking from when he was a young boy—ironically it’s knitted and has his name knitted around the cuff.

The tree is up, fully lighted, but won’t be fully decorated until our daughters arrive. That’s just something we do together. We all gloat over our favorite ornaments, and you can hear “I remember this one”… over and over again. There’s Christmas music in the background, but not the regular stuff. David has collected CD’s that really mark our season: Charlie Brown, the Canadian Brass albums, Dave Bruebeck’s Christmas album and many more.

This year all three women will be cooking together in the kitchen; it will be a menu that satisfies all of us, regardless of allergies, gluten intolerances, vegan regs, paleo regs, and Mom trying to lose weight. Per Tim Gunn, “We make it work” and it’s joyful. Every once in a while we find a recipe that all of us can eat, like zucchini noodles, and then we get really happy.

Lots of good, old memories get stirred up this time of year. I appreciate remembering them and having them come alive once more. When I was a kid, my dad was Santa at the church fair. He rode around town on the fire truck and then sat for hours in a throne like chair in the school auditorium while long lines of nervous children waited to sit on his lap and tell him their wishes. He was the absolute best Santa in the world: he listened, smiled, laughed, and looked soooo real. I have a photo of me sitting on his lap completely unaware that it was my dad. It’s one of my favorites. He made my childhood Christmas full of wonder and love.

Another standout memory is how every Christmas Eve, I’d hear sleigh bells and thumping on the roof. My heart would beat a million miles an hour, and I’d pretend to be sound asleep, just like Santa expected. Years later, I learned that it was Papa Louie Andiorio who did the honors every year. That was one of the many memories I have of that special man.

This Christmas, there mostly likely won’t be snow here at the Cape, and I probably won’t see Santa at the mall, but I will look for him in the sky and listen for reindeer hooves on the roof knowing that David’s probably throwing the pebbles. Merry Christmas to all.

Less is More is True

  1. Our low-key, sensible, non-traditional Thanksgiving was a big win. The food was healthy and moderate. There was more quiet, downtime and less craziness for everyone. I put together several polar fleece scarves, teddy bears and blankets for our local food/clothing pantry. Most of all, I appreciated the tenor of this holiday and will use it as a bridge to the rest of the holiday season. Less is more is true.

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    Kettle Pond at Beebe Woods-Click on pix to enlarge

  2. Christmas is a few weeks away and most of my gifts will be made by hand this year. I’m psyched. There are socks, hats, mittens, shawls, cloth dinner napkins, lavender sachets and a blanket waiting to be wrapped in paper I already have stashed from years past.
  3. “Buying Only The Essentials” has been in effect for five weeks (who’s counting?!) I’ve been trying to buy only the items that I really need: no excess, no fluff, no crazy consumption. Yes, I have fallen off the wagon once or twice, but nothing major. Black Friday and Cyber Monday found me enjoying what I already have and completely avoiding the chaos of those days. Each day that I successfully stick with the basics makes it easier to make this a way of life. I could have bought more books, yarn, fiber, food, Christmas gifts, but it was freeing to know that I really didn’t need all of the above. This voluntary simplicity is adding much more than it is subtracting.

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    Stone Wall Originally Meant to Stop Sheep From Wandering

  4. Speaking of way of life…David and I have been taking our brisk 45 minute daily walks for a little over a month. We vary the route so that we’re always checking out a new part of town. Re-discovering Beebe Woods with its kettle ponds, huge rocks and meandering paths has been a delight. I do forget that I’m exercising. The walk is brisk enough to qualify as a workout, but paced to be able to soak up all the joy along the way. As it gets colder, the mittens, boots and hats will join the action, and I’m expecting that we can do this all winter. I no longer try to avoid it or bitch about it afterwards. I think that’s progress!

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    Almost Bigger Than Life

  5. Books, books, books! My “to read” list continues to grow. I just started The Show Child by Eowyn Ivey and am instantly pulled into the text. The language is mesmerizing and after only twenty-five pages, I care about the characters and want to see how their lives unfold. For some reason it is reminding me of Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin—one of my favorite books. Speaking of Helprin, I’m reading his new book In Sunlight and in Shadow a bit at a time in order to make it last longer. I don’t want it to end. And next on my list are two Isaac Bashevis Singer books from my beloved student, Miki. I can’t wait to read them and talk to him about them.
  6. Every day something happens that makes me appreciate living here in Falmouth full time. There truly is a sense of community that is in sync with who I am and what I value. I’ve made new friends that will last a lifetime, maybe longer.

    Beebe Woods

    Beebe Woods

State of “Emerge & See”

10AM Monday Sandy

Even as I sit here waiting for Sandy to hit the Cape, and for the trees to do back bends, and the power to go out, there are some redeeming values to appreciate in this “State of Emergency”.

  1. I’m focused on what is essential and nothing trivial. I’m hoping for no injuries, no trees to fall into the house, and no loss of power. Today I’m not worried if I look good in these pants.
  2. Because I’m a tad anxious, I’ve surrounded myself with what makes me feel good: my David, the vest I’m knitting for me, socks for Molly, a hat to be started for Kate, and the new Mark Helprin book. Nothing extreme, just all good stuff.
  3. I’ve touched base with both kids and let them know all is well so far and that I’m crazy about them.

I’ve decided to stay calm and just ride out this storm. Not a bad choice considering all the options.

Love Lost: Junot Diaz

In This is How You Lose Her Junot Diaz willingly shares a seat on his sofa, a view into the bedroom, and the tensions that accompany love lost. He puts us completely into his world, and the complimentary whiplash is upsetting and addictive at the same time.

This novel continues with Yunior’s life as well as several episodes of familial as well as romantic love stories gone bad. Diaz explores the small actions that merge to create messy relationships and “life messes” in general. This novel serves up a rich narrative of how characters ruin their lives.

The book reads like someone is telling a story, the way a relative would share family secrets. Like voyeurs, we see it, hear it, almost taste the story. Characters come alive; their stories strike chords. As they make the same mistake repeatedly, we see it, they don’t. In many ways, it’s like watching a car wreck, but not rubbernecking for the blood and gore. The characters keep on moving, and so do the readers. I couldn’t put the book down and read it in one sitting.

Dysfunctional family dynamics bombard the reader. Sibling rivalry, preferential parental treatment, father’s absence and/or abuse, and living in far from perfect conditions are themes in each chapter. Love is lost and people suffer. Every chapter highlights struggle, disappointment and loneliness. There seems to be no answers or solace readily available. We turn each page and wonder if Yunior’s fear of Armageddon will be realized in the next chapter.

All of this angst occurs while the characters are always outsiders—alienated from the world around them. The cultural differences between life in the U.S. and the Dominican Republican are magnified and personalized. They’re also never mitigated. It’s more tension that never leaves these pages.

Diaz’s language is a mixture of words we understand, and many others that are mysteries. Some words are Spanish, some from contemporary media works, others seem created out of thin air. These mysterious words require looking at the context and using one’s imagination. It all works quite well. It’s also the written language (journal, e-mails, letters) within this novel that divulge secrets, expose truths and create chaos. Diaz does honor the written word and pay it homage. His unmistakable voice resonates clearly and effectively.

This book is not about searching for excellence or success… it’s a hunt for temporary happiness and coping skills to survive from day to day. Diaz has his players use sex as an instant fix for boredom or loneliness, but it often falls short in more ways than one.

Diaz paints this sad picture, but it doesn’t read as “desperate or hopeless”— it just goes on. The hook-up culture dominates and sex without intimacy rules. That’s how it rolls. The constant designation of women according to their nationality followed closely by a description of their bust and derriere is tedious; I expect Diaz does this purposely. It’s tiresome and limiting to view women in such a narrow perspective.

Infidelity and betrayal are the norm in this book, and both have consequences. Diaz does not harp on the morality of cheating on a lover, no matter how indiscriminate and how pervasive. He reveals that the cost of being a philanderer is anxiety, disappointment and alienation for all parties involved. It isn’t pretty, and it is painful. He shows how the women and children cope with their absent male figure and inadequate relationships. The men are shallow and often cruel. Few characters actually trust each other; there is a lack of authentic, respectful, loving partnerships here as well. Emptiness, self-destruction and self-loathing abound. Diaz shows that this behavior consistently depletes his characters. We see them shrink in their own eyes and in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The last chapter shows some enlightenment and a modest, new beginning. I had hoped for more from this book. I did become weary of women often used only as semen vessels with interesting protrusions front and back. And likewise it was boring to have male characters who are either busy humping or thinking about humping. Maybe that’s how they feel powerful in a world that doesn’t give them much clout. Is that the message? Is the purpose of Diaz’s effective storytelling a search for love, trust, respect? Maybe it just shows the depth of emptiness and a flailing attempt to fill a painful void.

Bookends

Often I absolutely hate to see a book come to an end. I savor the last fifty pages and sip them like fine wine. This happens more times than not, but this week it was “not”.

I read three books, all of which would have benefited from a haircut, two severe, one just a trim.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is an engaging flight of fancy. The reader leaves behind roots in reality and yields to the power of imagination. It’s a story about a fantastic circus where nothing is what it seems. Is the illusionist doing clever slight of hand tricks or are other forces at work? Yes, there’s a love story, but that isn’t the prime mover for me. The tension between what is possible versus the bizarre energizes the novel for me. Is it all a dream or would that be too simple? So many people told me they either hated the book or loved it. I liked most of it, with the exception of three or four chapters that seemed unnecessary and non-productive. The ending is not as interesting as I would have hoped, but the author succeeds in making me let go of rational expectations and that is an experience worth having.

It’s true that I tend to favor fiction over non-fiction, but two pieces of non-fiction made it to the top of my reading pile this week. Unstuff Your Life by Andrew J. Mellen caught my attention because of its focus on simplicity and minimalism. It is just shy of 400 pages and could well have afforded to unstuff itself. This is one of those books that would have made a superb two to three page magazine article. There are basically three messages:

1.     You are not your stuff. Separate yourself from your things and make rational decisions about them.

2.     One home for everything. That means everything has its place; put it there.

3.     Like with like. Group like objects together so you know where to find them.

I didn’t learn anything new from this book and should have known better to buy yet another book about decluttering my life.  Lesson learned; I’m donating the book. It will be out of the house tomorrow.

The second non-fiction book I tackled this week is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The subtitle interested me: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg explores how habits are formed and looks at the science, business and behavioral aspects of the subject. Examples are drawn from the research labs of MIT as well as case studies from around the country. He lets the reader see how cravings are turned into habits. This book bounces from neurological studies to animal research to case studies focusing on anecdotal stories then ricochets to management’s study of customer habits and back again. There is the constant reiteration of The Habit Loop which shows that habits consists of a cue that prompts a response, a routine that satisfies the prompt, and finally, a reward. The bottom line in converting bad habits to good ones calls for leaving the cue and the reward in place, while swapping out the routine to a healthier one. Duhigg shows that it is possible to create new habits and that even unsuspecting victims of memory loss can succeed at this task. Maybe there is hope for me.

I confess, I was fascinated by the analysis of how businesses collect customer habit information and use it to increase sales. I felt like a voyeur looking into the creation of Febreze—a product that was almost doomed for failure because customers were not making this product a habit. People who had smelly houses, didn’t recognized the smell after a while, and never felt the need to “refresh it” or get rid of the odor. The folks who did buy it saw it as a finishing touch to a room that was just tidied. I was likewise curious about how Alcoa revamped its entire company by making Workplace Safety its top priority. It retrained all levels of its operation to strive for no workplace injuries. Basically, new habits had to be formed from top to bottom. The process was eye-opening and yet another example of “doing well by doing good”.

The Power of Habit is a worthwhile read, but needs some serious skimming through the repetition and prolonged case studies. It is interesting to learn how business endeavors to get inside the consumer’s head (literally) in order to push for more sales, more business, more buying. The marketing research team at Target found a way to identify pregnant women at the very earliest stages of pregnancy in order to capture the $6800 of potential sales during the first year of a new born’s life. Big brother is alive and well—I should have already known that.