Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book 35: The Brightest Star in the Sky

I don't think I've ever read a Marian Keyes novel that I didn't like.  The Brightest Star in the Sky was no exception.  I downloaded this one from, and got an extra treat with it: The narrator is Irish, which is fitting since the story is set a Number 66 Star Street in Dublin.

A mysterious presence is visiting the residents of the four flats in Number 66.  This presence is counting down to something, which of course is not revealed until the very end. But if you pay attention to a seemingly innocuous description in the story, you get a good clue as to what is going on.

Keyes deftly weaves between the stories of each of the residents of Number 66, unfolding their stories in bits and pieces, and intertwining the characters lives a bit at a time. You know all will be revealed, but Keyes switches between story lines at just the right moment, always leaving you wanting to know more about each character.  Without disclosing too much, I did tear up at an especially poignant moment near the end.  I have a lot more to say about that, but it would be a big  spoiler for me to elaborate here, so I'll share only this: sometimes, the most precious moments of our lives are those we never envision, and we find we were lucky to be a part of them.

Keyes stories are easy to enjoy, even when the subject matter is heavy.  I to relate to the characters.  I describe Keyes' heroines as "charmingly real."  Flawed, certainly.  Dim? Maybe, on occasion.  But also spunky.  Going after what they want. Making tough decisions. Surviving.  

For listeners not familiar with an Irish accent, the audiobook may be a bit hard to follow, and perhaps reading the book would be better.  But to me, listening to it provided an authenticity to the story.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book 34: Lose Weight, Find Love, De-Clutter and Save Money: Essays on Happiness

In U2's Mofo, Bono sings about "...looking for to fill that God-shaped hole..." That phrase kept running through my head when I read back through the list of selections I've blogged this year. I noticed I have a few books around turning away from traditional religion, and books on personal growth and finding happiness.  I think these things are all related. When you've learned that what you're looking to fill isn't a God-shaped hole after all, you have to face that fact that you just aren't happy.  You can decide to accept that and go on, living a grey and bland life, or you can ask and answer the hard questions and figure out how to be happy.

The last few years brought me to that point. I had read a couple of good books about taking the next steps ( and and I decided it was time to take action.  I began working with a wonderful Life Coach, Carrie Tallman ( and I learned so much from her that within three weeks of us working together, I began to see changes in my life.

At the end of our coaching, Carrie recommended I check out Michele Woodward's website ( for a couple of reasons. First, Michele previously worked in politics, something in which I am avidly interested. Second, Carrie thought I would like Michele's website and newsletter styles.  Carrie was right.

After reading several of Michele's newsletters, I decided to check out her book of essays, Lose Weight, Find Love, De-Clutter and Save Money. This book is not a quick fix solution to anything. Instead, this compilation of essays offers insightful ways into taking charge of our thoughts and actions, to affect the change that we want. While it is easy to be cynical about how thoughts can affect change, it is really so simple that it is profound.  In an essay on "Clarity of Purpose" Woodward documents a decision tree of an typical client: 'If I acknowledge what I feel, people will be mad --> they will leave me -->I will be all by myself -->I will die alone --> I am not good enough for anyone to love --> I do not matter (p98)'.  When you feel like this,  and this is how I felt when I started working with Carrie, coaching can  and does help, but equally as important, understanding and focusing on what is really important can help you be happier. 

In other essays, Woodward offers thoughts on the art of being lazy, on being able to disconnect, on how we disengage and multiply our own stress by continually feeling compelled to multitask.  She talks about how to say no when you really want to say no- really, following the things that make you feel you are your most authentic and genuine person.  Not surprisingly, some of the Zen Buddhist things I liked learning in my previous post are recounted here as well.

Woodward's style is conversational, not condescending.  I could picture us sitting across a table from each other just chatting about these topics over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.  She doesn't come across as intimidatingly enlightened-instead, as someone who you can look to and say, she's got a way to figuring things out that just might benefit me.  

For anyone who is contemplating how to find more balance, learning to be your true self, learning to be happier, I'd recommend both Michele's site and this book.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Books 32 and 33: Buddhism 101

Bono calls The Edge a "Zen Presbyterian."  I've read quotations from the Dalai Lama.  I've heard of the eight-fold path, and the path to enlightenment.  I'm the first to call Karma a mean bitch.  But I really didn't have a good idea of what Buddhism is.  And it kept cropping up in things I was reading, in conversations with multiple people.  So I decided I needed to know a little more.

I read two books together for my introduction to Buddhism. The first, Buddhism for Beginners by Thubten Chodron, provides an overview of Buddhism, its tenets, and its methodology in the form of questions and answers.  I found it to be straightforward, presenting sometimes abstract ideas in language that is easy to understand.  From an overview of Buddhism to how to practice and how to treat ones Buddhist teachers, this book provides a solid overview without trying to indoctrinate.

The second book I read is How to Practice the Way to a Meaningful Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  Translated by a Professor of Tibetan Studies at the University of Virginia, How to Practice is the Dalai Lama's own story and his own beliefs and teachings about Tibetan Buddhism.  He provides detailed reasoning behind and analysis of the Three Ways to Practice: Morality,Wisdom, and Tantra.

I found How to Practice to be somewhat more abstract and philosophical.  Still very interesting, but I had to concentrate more on it as I read. No distractions.  Which, ironically, is a part of the message- being focused and mindful.

So, while I won't pretend to be any kind of expert on Buddhism, I will recap briefly some things I learned and observed while reading these two books.

First, many of the principles of Buddhism can be practiced whether one is religious or not. Little that I have seen in my admittedly narrow reading of the subject indicates anything offensive to any of the major religions with which I am familiar. Similarly, there's not a doctrine evident in these readings that would be offensive to someone who does not practice any religion.

Second, I think most of us could benefit from the basic teachings of Buddhism. Some of these are illustrated in other religions as well, but the judgement often present there is not obvious in Buddhism. For example, Harm none. Do what you can to make things better for other people.  Be wisely selfish. Realize our actions impact other people and things. Be mindful of your actions. Practice moderation. Be charitable. Eliminate suffering where you can. 

I could go on, but you get the idea.  While I don't intend to become a Buddhist, there are a few things I took away from these books that I intend to use. I'm going to  look at things from a new perspective. Buddhism teaches that our enemies teach us tolerance.  I think that if you substitute obstacles- something a little more abstract- for enemies, then you can think of obstacles teach tolerance.  Ironically, I read that right after being incredibly annoyed about something. It was so interesting that after I read that, it was easier for me to not get upset over the situation.  Just figured, ok, dealing with these idiots is going to teach me some tolerance.  And I let go of a lot of my frustration.

I'm also going to practice more meditation. I've done it off and on, and I do see its benefits. After reading so much about it here, I like the idea of taking time out, of focusing, of letting the clutter of my mind escape once in a while.

Curious about Buddhism? I'd recommend reading these two together.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book 31: The Accidental Bestseller

When I started Wendy Wax's The Accidental Bestseller I expected something else.    And I'll be honest. For the first hundred or so pages, I was enjoying the book but not devouring it.  I was ready to chalk it up to a pleasant summer read, with a predictable path and characters.  It made for a nice few pages to read before bed, but I didn't see it as one that would make me excited about a blog post.

But then, something changed.  Having been neglectful of my reading, I took the book off the night stand, and brought it downstairs.  I wanted to be entertained by a good story. I sat on the sofa, the iPod playing a nice mellow mix in the background, and I turned the next page.

 Unexpectedly, I was sucked into the story, and I realized it wasn't the story that was lacking, it was my attention to it.

The Accidental Bestseller provides an inside look at the publishing world, focusing on Kendall Aims and three of her author friends. When Kendall undergoes monumental professional and personal crises simultaneously, the friends band together in a rather unorthodox way to help her reach the deadline for her next novel.  The four agree to collaborate with Kendall on the novel, each voicing their own characters and each- unknowing to the others- pulls from her personal life to create the story.  The ghost authors must remain a secret, and they all assume their secrets will remain safe.

Truth and secrets play unexpected starring themes in The Accidental Bestseller, and in turn, make it a much more compelling read than I anticipated when I first opened the book. Even as I was reading, thoughts abounded about keeping secrets and telling truths.  How many of us, no matter how close we are to someone else, still hold back a part of ourselves, still keep our own secrets?  I don't care if it is because we are ashamed of something, or scared, or just private.  Is there some small part of us that we hold back under the misguided (or accurate) assumption that those we hold dear can't handle that part of us?  If we say we trust someone implicitly- a best friend, a spouse- do we owe telling them everything about us? What if it is just to assuage our conscience?

Similarly, can we still be truthful by remaining silent?  What happens if we decide to put the truth out there?  Or if the truth is found out, and exposed for us?  Where do we draw the line at full disclosure and deciding that we have the right to keep some things to ourselves if we want to?

Set primarily in the metro Atlanta area and New York City, I enjoyed reading about so many places with which I am familiar.  Wax authentically captures Atlanta and its surrounding areas, something I am always appreciative of since it is an area I know well. The unique plot through the publishing industry, the intricacies of the agent, publisher, and author relationship, were really fascinating. That's an area I don't know much about and I feel like I had an "insider's view" into the arena.  I'm glad I read it, and I look forward to reading Ms. Wax's latest book, Magnolia Wednesdays.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Another Random Update- Things that Make Me Think...

Someone said to me yesterday, "No one cares about your stupid blog."  Which made me start thinking.  I think we all know that the instant we put something out for public consumption, it is open for debate. Not everyone is going to love it.  That's life.  

I've been pleasantly surprised by every kind word I've received about this blog.  I've been surprised by the people who read it. I love hearing people say they are reading a book because I talked about it here. I like hearing other people's opinions about the selections I've read.  There's always some different perspective.  So I am really glad I'm doing this.

I think, though, that for any of us who post blogs- no matter the subject- that while we hope for readers and hope to engage people in these little facets of our lives, we're really doing this for ourselves.  If no one looked at this, I would still read 52 books this year, and still record my thoughts about them because it is meaningful to me.

I am so glad I did this.  And I'm glad I created the Twitter account to chronicle what I am doing for the blog. I've "met" so many wonderful people through it. I've been exposed to books and authors and articles and thoughts I would never have known about otherwise.  

I'm not trying to change the world with this little blog. I'm just talking about something that's important to me.  People may not care about it- that's OK.  I'm doing it for me.  But for those of you who do read it, who do ask me what I'm reading next, or make suggestions for me to add to the list: Thank You.  It is more meaningful than you know, and I'm glad we're sharing the wonderful world of words.