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March 2015 Book Reviews

Boston on the first day of “spring”

April means it should be Spring and yet as of two days ago I encountered snow falling in Boston. Apparently breaking the record wasn’t good enough!

As much as I look forward to warm weather and the day the dry skin on my hands finally, finally manages to heal without the assiduous application of hand cream, I can’t help but hold some fondness for this topsy-turvy springtime weather. Spring never lasts long in Boston — we seem to go from snow flurries one week to t-shirts the next, so this time next month I’m likely to be singing a different tune.

And on that note, here are this month’s book reviews!

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

The Fire Starter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte

“A revolution is a way of being that becomes a significantly better way of doing. And it shifts and lifts people up along with you and keeps the universe on the edge of itself. A Course in Miracles defines a miracle as “a shift in perception”. Revolutions can feel miraculous.”

I really enjoyed reading Danielle LaPorte’s The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms this month. Danielle LaPorte walks the woo-woo line a bit, but the crux of the book is about getting really clear on your WHY (I read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why last month, check out that review here).

While Simon Sinek’s book was a satisfying and intellectually convincing read, I think The Fire Starter Sessions may actually be more useful when figuring out what to do if you’ve lost track of your WHY. And as someone still emerging from the battlefield of a total loss of WHY, it’s a subject that happens to be near and dear to my heart.

“You will always be too much of something for someone: too big, too loud, too soft, too edgy. If you round out your edges, you lose your edge.”

For me, this was a transformative book. Full of wisdom and straight-talk, Danielle LaPorte manages to both inspire and cut the crap. I liked it enough that I’m even considering buying myself a copy to keep — a state of affairs that’s basically unheard of. It’s worth mentioning that the Kindle version is crummy — I’m sure the book is beautiful in print, but there are a lot of aspects to the layout that don’t translate well to Kindle. FYI.

It’s always hard to tell when a book feels transformative if it’s the book itself, or if it just happens to be the right book at the right time. I’d guess it’s usually a combination of both — a good book at the right time is probably the most common recipe for brilliant breakthroughs. In any case, this one really worked for me!

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

“People are complicated. There is so much more to everybody than you realize. You see someone in school every day, or at work, in the canteen, and you share a cigarette or a coffee with them, and you talk about the weather or last night’s air raid. But you don’t talk so much about what was the nastiest thing you ever said to your mother, or how you pretended to be David Balfour, the hero of “Kidnapped”, for the whole year when you were thirteen, or what you imagine yourself doing with the pilot who looks like Leslie Howard if you were alone in his bunk after a dance.”

This month I also read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. The friend who recommended the book to me said that it was the “unofficial novel of The Toast” (if any website were to have a book for a mascot it would be the Toast!). Amusingly I found my feelings on the Toast pretty well reflected by my feelings about this book — which is to say my feelings were mixed.

The book is about two girls who become friends when brought together by a combination of circumstance and WWII. One of the girls works as a pilot for the British Air Transport Auxiliary and the other is recruited by the British intelligence service as a spy. The book is the story of their friendship and of their intertwined fates when a covert mission goes awry.

The beginning of the book triggered two of my biggest pet peeves — on the one hand, the POV was third person limited (i.e. told from a single character’s perspective) and yet STILL she had verbatim knowledge of conversations at which she was not present. The reasons for this tie in to my second peeve — which is that we are probably supposed to conclude that she is making these conversations up, and yet it’s never clear to the reader what exactly she’s lying about or whether she’s lying at all and I found that irksome. (Plus, she’s entirely too glib about her capture and torture at the hands of the Gestapo.)

However, with that said, the book did grow on me as I went and the second half of the book clears up a lot of the mysteries and irritations of the first part. By the time I managed to get all the way to the end I found I was almost willing to forgive the book its inauspicious beginning.

 

 The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks

“You wind up at an after-hours club Bix knows about on Ludlow, crowded with people too high to go home. You all dance together, subdividing the space between now and tomorrow until time seems to move backward.”
— Jennifer Egan, “Out of Body”

As part of my ongoing literary education (the best way to learn to write great stories is to read great stories!), I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks. I’ve never given much credit to anthologies — I often find them hit or miss, likely because a great short story is harder to write than a decent novel. I find even collections of the “best” tend to be rather uneven in terms of quality.

That remains true of this collection. Some of the stories were breathtaking and had me careening through the pages like I’m drowning. Others left me cold.

“You don’t know what hurts more: the swirling moral turbulence of the book or the belated discovery that everything you thought about it was wrong. You missed it all: register, mood, irony, ambiguity, subtleties of characterization, narrative arc, even basic plot points. You can’t read. It’s like finding out, at thirty, that you’re adopted.”
— Richard Powers, “To the Measures Fall”

A few notable highlights:

  • By far my favorite story was “Out of Body” by Jennifer Egan, and which I was delighted to discover is excerpted from her book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The story is a stunningly-wrought example of a second-person POV that really works and I loved it and cringed with it and had to take a few moments to sit with it after I’d finished. I’ll definitely be reading the book, so keep an eye out for that!
  • I also enjoyed the story “Housewifely Arts” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, about a woman (a mother) who takes her son on a road trip to go see the parrot that once belonged to her own (now deceased) mother because she wishes to hear her (mother’s) voice. I found the story to be a fascinating and artful exploration of motherhood as she considers her simultaneous identity as daughter to her mother and mother to her son.
  • I enjoyed the second story I’ve quoted as well (“To the Measures Fall” by Robert Powers), which makes two stories in second person that I loved! The thing that’s fascinating about Powers’s story is the way in which it explores a woman’s changing relationship with a book (To the Measures Fall by Elton Wentworth). One of the best things about being a reader is that sometimes you come back to a book many years later and find it’s nothing like the book you remember. Robert Powers captures this experience beautifully in his story.

As a student of writing and literature, I was especially thrilled to discover the contributor’s notes at the end of the book — which I found a fascinating peek into other people’s writing processes, as well as an interesting look at how the ideas for the stories came about.

 

The Fear Cure by Lissa Rankin

“There’s a wonderful line often attributed to Anaïs Nin: ‘And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’ I understand that the risk it takes to blossom takes a lot of courage. This is your invitation. What will it take for your longing to outweigh your fear of the unknown? What will it take for you to find the courage to blossom?”

Last, but certainly not least, I just finished reading Lissa Rankin’s new book, The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage as Medicine for the Body, Mind, and Soul. I’ve been a huge fan of Lissa’s work, ever since I was introduced to her work through her previous book, Mind Over MedicineThe Fear Cure is an interesting departure from her previous, more-technical work and is her first foray into the “self-help” genre.

As someone who has realized just how much of a role fear plays in my own life, I felt like the timing of this book’s publication was perfect. (Actually I feel a bit like the universe is conspiring… both Brene Brown and Liz Gilbert also have books on fear coming out this year whose publication I eagerly await.)

In The Fear Cure, Lissa suggests that our Western culture operates under the guise of what she calls the “Four Fearful Assumptions”:

  • Uncertainty is unsafe
  • I can’t handle losing what I cherish
  • It’s a dangerous world
  • I’m all alone

She suggests that we replace these limiting beliefs with what she likes to call the “Four Courage-Cultivating Truths” and guides the reader through a series of exercises to write their own personal “Prescription for Courage”. The truths she suggests are:

  • Uncertainty is the gateway to possibility
  • Loss is natural and can lead to growth
  • It’s a purposeful universe
  • We are all One

While I am agnostic regarding the factual accuracy of some of these “courage-cultivating truths”, I do feel that approaching life from such a perspective would encourage me to acts of greater courage. What about you?

 

I’d love to know what you’ve been reading. If you’ve read any great (or not-so-great) books lately let me know in the comments!

 

Tired of waiting for my monthly wrap-ups? I talk about what I’m reading each week in my email newsletter.

 

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