Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book 13: The Politician

When the 2008 Presidential campaign was looming, John Edwards was the first Democratic candidate I really considered following. I liked his stance on Poverty eradication. I wanted to give him a shot at the candidacy. I don't know precisely what it was that triggered me to start looking at the other contenders, and ultimately wholeheartedly supporting someone else, but early in the race something just didn't seem right with Edwards.
Soon enough, the news broke about his (at the time) alleged affair with Rielle Hunter. I figured that was between Edwards and his wife. Elizabeth appeared to react with dignity. I was disappointed in Edwards, after his very public declarations about Elizabeth being the love of his life.
As more and more of the story broke, the more disgusted I became. John Edwards let a staffer take the fall for him? He was actually this baby's father and denied it for nearly two years?! I was incredulous. And I felt compassion for Elizabeth and their children.
I was also fascinated by Andrew Young, the staffer and long time friend of the Edwards family. What motivated this man to claim paternity for a child that was not his? That is what intrigued me about this book. I wanted to hear what Young had to say.
Now, I have no idea how much of this book is true. It could be written off as sour grapes from a man hoping to ride Edwards' coattails into the White House. After reading the book, I feel like Andrew Young had a case of hero worship, and believed his friend and boss when Edwards told Young that Young and his family would always be taken of if they supported Edwards' efforts to get into the White House.
After reading this book and hearing various other accounts of this saga, I truly believe John Edwards thought he was entitled to whatever he wanted. I honestly think he thought he was above getting caught. I think Elizabeth Edwards was equally as ambitious. After seeing transcripts of some of the emails and voice mails Elizabeth sent Young and his wife, I've lost a lot of respect for her. I have to presume they are true, as I believe it would open Young to libel suits if he made them up.
I suppose politics is just a smarmy game, and a lot of time you have to take the good with the bad. But I also wonder just how far I would go to support someone... I consider myself a very loyal person, but I can't imagine doing everything that Young did. I hope I would see through the manipulation that Young experienced. I hope that I would have the foresight to stick to my ideals and maintain my integrity. But who knows? What really happens when you are so subtly pulled into this kind of web?
A very quick non-fiction read. Just Young telling his side of the story, showing how, in his hindsight view, John and Elizabeth Edwards very nearly hoodwinked us all.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book 12: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Ah, travel weeks. Those times when I am guaranteed solid time to read while sitting on a plane or in the airport, when I'm having a solo dinner with all the other road warriors in some random hotel restaurant. This was one of those weeks with 16 hours of travel logged, so plenty of time to make headway.
My friend Ashby told me this is one of her new favorite books. My friend Amanda liked it, too. So with recommendations from two such smart people who equally appreciate pop culture trash magazines as well as a good read, I figured I was in for a good time.
I'll be honest. I don't recommend this book for an e-Reader. This is one that should be held and thumbed through, where the stark white pages "Left intentionally blank" will have more of an impact than the quick skim of an electronic screen. There are photographs and illustrations throughout the book to enhance the story, and had I known that when I started, I would have carried the hard copy with me, or put off reading it until I wasn't traveling. As it is, I'll probably re-read this in hard copy at some point, just to get the full experience with it, as it was truly intended.
The writing style is somewhat jarring, stream of consciousness, almost. It takes a bit of getting used to. But from Oskar Schell's perspective, given his age, the randomness makes sense. And since most of the other instances where things seem to be almost spilling off the page are either characters' memories, or letters they are writing, it works. But it did take me off guard the first few pages.
This is the first book in a while where I've stopped to write down a line I love. On page 114 of the hard copy, it is "...literature is the only religion her father practiced...." And I nearly embarrassed myself on the flight home last night by tearing up when Oskar recounts part of documentary recalling the stories of survivors of Hiroshima.
Extremely Loud is set in the aftermath of September 11. The story intertwines past and present lives of the surviving family of a victim who lost his life in the World Trade Center bombings. Young Oskar Schell's last real tie to his father is a key he found in some of his father's belongings. His quest to find out what the key opens is the catalyst for linking together the other characters and their stories.
Really quite a touching book, parts of it took me back to that place I don't like to be when I think about 9/11. So don't read this one if you are looking for a complete barrel of laughs. But if you are looking for a poignant, touching story about surviving, loving and letting people know you love them, then definitely add this one to your must read list.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Random Posting

There is no book associated with this post. Instead, some general observations.
I've loved to read for as long as I can remember. I'm a fast reader. A really good book can suck me in and I will neglect all else in the world to read a little more.
Although I'm ahead of the book-a-week pace I need to keep to finish this goal of 52 books in 52 weeks, I'm already seeing a few ill effects.
Sometimes, I feel like I should be reading only to keep myself on track. I hate feeling like reading might ever be a chore. After I finished books 9 and 10, I deliberately took a day off from reading. I needed to do other things. I needed to not feel as if I HAD to read.
Of course, I missed it within a few hours, but I still found other things to do. I've realized I can't let reading become a substitute for other things. It has to be something I can always enjoy. At the same time, reading is almost a compulsion for me, but it has to be things I'm enthralled with.
So, I'm trying to balance this goal with real life and work and all else that comes with it. And I'm enjoying Book 12,.. so stay tuned....

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book 11: Stolen Innocence

So now I know where Big Love gets its inspiration... .at least for stories concerning Juniper Creek and Bill's complicated family history. Except in this instance, it is true. Stolen Innocence is Elissa Walls' story of growing up under Warren Jeff's in an FLDS sect of the Mormon church in Utah.
In and of itself, I don't have a problem with a group deciding to live in isolation to practice its religious beliefs. The Amish do it quite well. And probably lots of other groups I don't know anything about.
But the environment Elissa Walls grew up in I have significant issues with. In this community, power is in the hands of the Prophet, who is believed to be God's mouthpiece on earth. Men in the sect are granted a Priesthood, if they are deemed worthy enough, and expected to guide and direct their families in all aspects. If a man has at least 3 wives, and he is sealed to them for time and eternity, then he can reach the highest levels of heaven. Not my idea of reality or salvation, but under Uncle LeRoy and Uncle Rulon (the two Prophets before Warren Jeffs), people entered into these relationships with relatively little manipulation, although admittedly very little exposure to any other way of life, either. That's not to say there wasn't a dark side. If a man was deemed to be an unworthy Priesthood holder for some reason, then his wives and children could be reassigned to another man, with no consideration for what the wives might want. They were property of the husbands.
When Warren Jeffs began taking over the Priesthood from his aging father, things began to change. Warren Jeffs used his position to manipulate and control the community, eventually banning all influences of the outside world- television, radios, traditional education, even classical music and the historical celebrations held so dear to the Community. This was the tip of the iceberg. At age 14, Elissa Walls was forced to marry her 20 year old cousin. Despite her protests, both before and during her marriage, she was continually told to submit to her husband. After years of abuse, she managed to escape the clutches of the FLDS and eventually went on to become Utah's star witness against Warren Jeffs.
I won't go into any more detail about Elissa Walls' story here. It is quite compelling, and very easy reading. What I will rant on for a moment is the slippery slope of too much power in the hands of a few, and being in a culture that does not allow room for questions.
Under Warren Jeffs. entire families were torn apart. Underage girls were forced into marriages, threatened with eternal damnation if they went against the Prophet. Boys were expelled from the community with no money, little education and no hope. Religion fails when it uses the fear of losing salvation to manipulate its followers into obeying arbitrary rules. Religion also fails when it refuses examination and question. In some cases, questioning does lead to a loss of faith- but that should be left to the individual, arrived at through their own examination of doctrine and beliefs. It should not come to be because the person didn't "keep sweet." Walls is able to admit now that she was brainwashed.
It is easy for me, as an outsider, to say "Wow, how can these people believe this!" But if you grow up in a culture, and you feel this is your only hope for salvation it is understandable. While I wouldn't wish Walls' past on anyone, her natural curiosity and survival instinct allowed her to move past what she grew up learning, and make a path in the world for herself. She has a special kind of courage, and although I doubt our paths will ever cross, I wish her the best in her future.
I'd recommend for anyone fascinated with what I call "fringe religions" and anyone who is into Big Love on HBO. Also anyone who enjoys reading memoirs.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book 10: The Help

There's been a quiet buzz about The Help. I've looked at it a time or two in the bookstore, heard it mentioned by a few people. It pulled me, much like Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood did. In other words, I'd think about it, then put it down. And, in the mean time, I read nine other books.
Then, about a week ago, my friend Kenneth told me I must add this book to my list to read. My friend Brian knows the author, Krathryn Stockett, and also recommended the book. My friend Marie said she had heard so much about it. So, when the time came earlier this week to try out my new Kindle for iPhone app, I chose The Help. And got very little done for the rest of the week, because I could not stop reading it.
Only a few chapters in, I emailed a handful of my bibliophile friends and told them to go out, that minute, and get this book. It was that engrossing.
The Help, from the Publisher's Weekly summary at, "set during the nascent civil rights movement in Jackson, Miss., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan is just home from college in 1962, and, anxious to become a writer, is advised to hone her chops by writing about what disturbs you. The budding social activist begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies and mistrusts enlisting the help of Aibileen, a maid who's raised 17 children, and Aibileen's best friend Minny, who's found herself unemployed more than a few times after mouthing off to her white employers. The book Skeeter puts together based on their stories is scathing and shocking, bringing pride and hope to the black community, while giving Skeeter the courage to break down her personal boundaries and pursue her dreams. "
That summarizes the plot well, but here's more around what hooked me. I was born a full decade after this story was set, but I've lived all my life in the South. I felt like I know this women on some level, because I know women like them. That familiarity immediately drew me in. I thought a lot about Skeeter Phelan. Described in the book as not pretty in any conventional sense, Skeeter is going through the motions of the life she is supposed to live, Junior League meetings, bridge games, and searching for a husband. Unmarried at 23? Well, your highest quest in life should be getting that MRS, and if your looks can't get you there, perhaps a trust fund from Daddy's plantation can help. Except that Skeeter went to college for something more than her MRS. She got an education, and she wants to write. She begins noticing the way her friends treat, talk to, and talk around their black maids. As mentioned in the summary, she begins working with two of the maids to collect their stories into a book.
Collecting these stories was a dangerous undertaking on many levels. For the maids, it was a threat to their livelihoods. If they were found out, at best it would mean that they would lose any chance of making a living, providing for their families, in Jackson. At worse, it could mean they lose their life. For Skeeter, standing up against the injustice would virtually assure her ostracization from the community she called home. These women all knew the consequences of their actions, yet they chose to go forward anyway. That courage is what got to me. It wasn't going to be easy, but it was the right thing to do. And it changed lives.
This book made me want to be a better person. And it made me think about what might be going on in this world that I need to stand up for, because it is the right thing to do, opinions of friends and family be damned. I was blessed with two wonderful Political Science professors in college who first made me think about what it is that would make me risk everything. My friend Lara and I have discussed, more than once, how easy it is looking back to see the injustice of say, women not having the right to vote. But had we lived in that era, would we have really had the courage to march for suffrage? Same thing here. I don't deny that racism still exists, but would I have had the courage to fight for civil rights? And what is that issue now? I think I know. And I think I know what I have to do about it. And if I talk about it with the wrong people, I'm certainly going to take a lot of heat for it. But I feel like it is the right thing to do. And I want to be able to look back on my life one day and say I did something that mattered. The power of a book to evoke something like this, even if it is a work of fiction, is something I adore. This book will likely be one I regard in the same way as I do To Kill A Mockingbird.
Many thanks to my friend Kenneth, who endured innumerable text messages and phone calls from me as I read this book- I was bursting to talk about it with someone!

Book 9: Finding Your Own North Star

A former colleague recommended Martha Beck's Finding Your Own North Star to me several years ago. I've read it a few times now. Sometimes, I think we hear messages, get hints about our path, and we ignore them. Then, when the stars align, when the universe is ready, when we're ready, we finally listen to the message. This time, I think I was ready to listen to the message of this book, to trust what Beck calls "The Essential Self."
Beck theorizes that all of us have an essential self and a social self. It is the social self that keeps us out of jail, in the Junior League, and coloring in the lines. The Essential self is who we are at our core, who we are meant to be. And the idea is that the two play nicely together and share their toys. In reality, many of us allow our social self to take over. Yes, it keeps us out of jail. But it also keeps us in the Junior League when we'd sooner walk barefoot over hot coals than attend one more committee meeting, because it is what we're expected to do. Allowing the social self too much control makes sure we only color in the lines and are appalled at even suggesting that we freehand something.
Beck's premise is that we have our own internal compass, our own north star, comprised in part of our essential self. If we listen to this essential self and follow this internal compass we are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Yes, I'm boiling that down a bit. And I don't mean to sound flip about it, or go all "The Secret" and talk about laws of attraction and that stuff. I don't think Beck intends that either. I believe that what she intends is that if we listen to our true wants and needs, and do what we can to meet those, then we are holistically happier, healthier, and wealthier people.
I've been going through quite the contemplative stage for the last year or so. What do I want to be when I grow up, and what do I want to leave as a legacy? When I posted on Harry, A History, I mentioned the emotions that it brought up in me. The giddy, childlike excitement I felt at the Harry Potter series. How HAPPY it made me. Beck thinks that if we are in touch with our essential selves, then we know our path because it evokes those same giddy, happy, passionate feelings in us.
I lost that a long time ago. I haven't truly felt things in a long time. I've merely existed, doing what is expected of me. I don't want that to be all there is, so I took Leonard Cohen's advice. I couldn't feel, so I'm learning to touch. After this third? fourth? reading of North Star, I'm finally starting to pay attention to my essential self.
Martha Beck is right. When you ignore your essential self, your body reacts differently than when you let this essential part of you guide your actions. I made the conscious decision earlier this week to go with this "gut feeling." I was faced with a question where I knew what the socially preferred answer would be "yes, I'll give up this free time on a holiday to do something that really can wait." As soon as I heard the question, my body tensed . My stomach clenched. I didn't want to give up time on a holiday for a non-essential meeting. I swallowed hard and said what my essential self was screaming at me to say. "No." And immediately, the tension left me. I relaxed. I was proud of myself.
This book is peppered with exercises and activities to help discover one's true path. I'm working through those as I have time. I'm beginning to experience what Beck means when she talks about how much better it feels to be authentic. I figure better late than never, but maybe, just maybe, I'm on the path to creating my own happiness.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book 8: Harry, A History

Harry, A History,by Melissa Anelli

Only minutes after I began listening to Harry, A History, I had to turn it off. As I recently explained on my Facebook page, even I am sometimes surprised at my level of dorkiness, and this was one of those moments. Should any of my friends read this post, I'm ready for whatever geek jokes you throw at me. After this book, I know I'm in good company.

When I started listening to the book, I was driving through Atlanta on I-20 on a Friday afternoon. In other words, not the time to be so distracted by a book, so overwhelmed with the emotions it was bringing back to me, that I couldn't pay attention to the road. I simply had to turn it off for something that required less involvement from me. As soon as I could, though, I tuned back into the audiobook and ordered a hard copy of it for future reference.

Harry, A History, opens with the excitement of the impending announcement of the publication date of the final Harry Potter novel, and all that the announcement meant. I remember hearing the date, and getting my notification from that I could pre-order the book. On the release date, I remember giddily greeting the UPS delivery man halfway down the driveway, just to get my hands on the book that much sooner. I remember I had houseguests the weekend Deathly Hallows came out. As soon as they left on Sunday, I barricaded myself in the house, with no internet, television, or radio distractions, and read. I didn’t want any spoilers, and I read the whole book. I had to finish it in one fell swoop because work beckoned on Monday and I just couldn’t take the chance of learning who lived, who died, and how things resolved from any source other than JK Rowling herself. In a much more eloquent manner, Melissa Anelli recounts her similar emotions at learning the date. As webmistress of the Leaky Cauldron, one of the top rated Harry Potter fansites on the web, Anelli has been privy to the inner workings of the amazing Harry Potter fandom. She shares her experiences, and what the books and fans and JK Rowling herself have meant to Melissa over the years.

This book does precisely what it should for any reader who cares deeply about its subject matter. I’m a self-professed Harry Potter fan (Potterfile? Potterhead?). I’m a lot like Hermione in a lot of ways, but hopefully more like her in Books 4-7 than 1-3. Bossy, nagging little swot, wasn’t she, in those early books? But I digress. Anelli brought back to my mind the excitement I felt when I first discovered the Harry Potter books. She began reading the books when she was in school at Georgetown University. She became friends with one of the "cool kids" who also loved the books. She began volunteering with the Leaky Cauldron fan site ( and it wasn't long before her "hobby" began to overtake "real" Life.

I'm only a little embarrassed to admit that at more than one part of this book, I was nearly in tears. Not because anything was that sad, but because it was so close to home, and so fulfilling. Melissa Anelli is passionate about Harry Potter, and she was able to turn this passion into something meaningful in her life. At the same time, she discovered and reported on how a series of BOOKS brought so many people from so many different experiences together.

And to me, that is the best thing about the Harry Potter books. In this era of instant gratification, of the internet and PS3's and Wii's and Twitter and Facebook, etc., etc., etc., it is books that brought together millions of people over ten years. Books! Isn't that amazing? Books!

But back to what I loved about Melissa's account of the Harry Potter phenomenon. I didn't know that the HP fandom is as extensive as it is. I love that Anelli talks about some of the lesser-known sites that fought for the right to discuss the books they loved, and worked with Rowling and Warner Brothers to find a happy medium. I love that Wizard Rock is a legitimate rock genre, which I now know. Special thanks to Draco and the Malfoys, Harry and The Potters, and The Whomping Willows for now having their own playlist on my iPod. Extra Special thanks to Melissa Anelli for letting me know they exist.

I think, mostly, what I loved about the book is that Melissa Anelli got to live her bliss. How many of us can say that? She became passionate about a series of books, and found a cyber community that felt the same. She helped nurture and grow that community. Because she protected the integrity of the series, she earned the respect of her fellow fans, and equally as important, JK Rowling herself. Anelli found a way to turn her passion for writing, and her passion for this magical world of Harry Potter into a book. A thoroughly engaging and enjoyable book for any HP Fan. And finding a way to share your bliss with others, well, isn't that something all of us want in the end?