Mind Over Brain Matter
The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin
First Line: “We humans have a long history of pursuing neural enhancement–ways to improve the brains that evolution gave us.”
This book is thick, but don’t be intimidated. Levitin does a great job of holding our attention and I found myself jotting lots of little notes during this long read. It’s basically a college crash-course in brain science studies, covering things like memory, productivity, and making decisions. There are some good insights and tips and tricks on how to…what? Function better in the world?
Levitin reminds us that decision-overloads lead to a loss of drive. If all of our brain power is sucked up throughout the day in making petty choices, we end up feeling grumpy and lethargic. (Think: Having to pick the best pen out of 50 options while shopping at an office supply store. Not exactly a life-changing decision, but still mentally exhausting!)
The book goes on to discuss how happy people, calm people, highly successful people–whatever you want to call them– are smart because they know how to liberate their intellect. They understand the value of that “good enough” option and are able to satisfice, or accept the middle path. Not sweating over the small stuff throughout the day helps them focus better when they need to solve a truly tricky problem.
Of course, conserving your mental energy is a lot easier when you’ve got a personal shopper, private chef, PR assistant, etc. You know that quote/guilt trip floating around about Beyoncé having just as much time in the day as you, or anyone else? That’s totally bogus. Highly successful individuals are able to disperse their life/business responsibilities to an entire crew of people. They limit the minutiae of their everyday life through outsourcing, giving them more time and space to pursue more important things.
Even if you can’t afford a personal assistant, Levitin’s offers some practical, scientific advice on how to be more mentally organized. We’ve got the good ol’ “Eating the Frog” approach (i.e., doing the most unpleasant task first thing in the morning, because your willpower will lessen as the day progresses), studies on how to strengthen social ties with transparency (even in the workplace!), and a fun section discussing how the best creative work happens when our brain is in a Flow State.
I finished this read with more hope than despair. There’s much to do to get more organized, focused, and productive, but fortunately Levitin makes it all seem attainable. And it’s a science book, not self-help. So it’s got a great tone for both business professionals and curious intellectuals.
Bottom Line: Your brain doesn’t want you to spend more time on a decision than it’s worth.
A pig, dark riders, and heroes! Oh my!
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
First Line: “Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.”
Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, is what every great kid hero ought to be. He’s got humble beginnings, fierce loyalty, and a little bit of a stubborn streak. This is the kind of book that even non-readers will plow through because it starts with a bang. By page four we’re hearing about the Horned King (he’s the bad guy–duh) and we’re gripped with fear. By chapter two, Taran’s already gone and started his adventure.
The pace is quick yet steady and Taran’s solo quest gradually turns into a band of misfits story. Even if the characters seem a little familiar to more experienced readers (i.e., one guy sounds an awful lot like Gollum), they’re still entertaining.
In a sense, this novel is the ideal Intro to Fantasy. It’s a little more rugged and action-oriented than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but it’s at a comparable reading level.
Even better–this novel isn’t some fleeting 21st century “bestseller.” The Book of Three is a classic–it’s definitely going to go through dozens more reprints and re-releases. Until then, this 50th Anniversary Edition is pretty great to hold.
Want to encourage a love of reading? Give a kid a lux hardback with gold leaf. Because yes, the cover matters. Cloth and buckram bindings make the reading experience rich and epic and better suit the King Arthur-adventure-hero vibe. From Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (this is book one), they can graduate to Narnia, then Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and eventually The Lord of the Rings.
Bottom Line: It’s fiction and “make believe,” but having kids read stories like this can still build character.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Barbara Ehrenreich.
Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
First Line: “Sometime in my thirteenth year, but a little before I actually achieved that age, things began to assemble themselves into what I called ‘the situation.'”
I think I heard about Ehrenreich’s most recent title from the radio. But then I forget about it. And then, a few weeks back, it appeared again–staring at me from that library shrine: “New Arrivals.”
This is a difficult review to write because the book itself is…confused. For example, its catalog card label: my library copy has a “B” on the spine, but Ehrenreich notes in the Foreword, “I will never write an autobiography, nor am I sure, after all these years, that there is even one coherent ‘self’ or ‘voice’ to serve as narrator.” From this assertion, I think Ehrenreich means that this account, this book, is not a complete or full representation of her life up until 2013 (or whenever). To which I say, “Duh. No book can cover everything.” But it’s even more complicated than that. Ehrenreich wrote Living with a Wild God as a sort of response to her younger self’s journals. Thus, the narrator is a blend of her past and present voices. She’s a scientist, journalist, and atheist (maybe) trying to make sense out of this GOD encounter she had one morning during a predawn walk. But how can someone analyze a mystical experience?
Perhaps we should call this book a memoir-journal-essay. It’s a trinity definition! It’s a memoir because it’s a nonfiction, first-person narrative. It’s a journal because it’s deeply personal, extremely private, and is essentially a conversation between Ehrenreich and her higher/inner self. It’s an essay because it’s tackling and expanding on one specific topic (her mystic-moment). I love these qualities! Yet I still feel that the tone is often dark. The young Ehrenreich identified with a solipsistic perspective on the world that struck me as creepy and cold. Sure, she grows out of this phase, her attitude and focus shifts to philanthropy, but she some of those teen years were troubling.
Despite my jumbled review–trying to comprehend Ehrenreich trying to comprehend “the situation”–Living with a Wild God is, believe it or not, cohesive. The events build and flow and there’s a timeline and even though I liken it to a journal about a journal, it’s not a ramble or rant. It’s an exploration. There’s a powerful story in these pages. Is it a testimonial? I don’t know. But I’m glad I got to read this non-autobiography. I’m grateful to Ehrenreich for being so bold to share.
Bottom Line: Raw, rich, real, and (yippee!) really mentally- and emotionally-exhausting!
Happily Ever After?
The Reflections of Queen Snow White by David Meredith
First Line: “With a shrill keen the two young hawks soared over snow-capped peaks, reveling in the newly come spring.”
Note: The author kindly contacted me (Paige) to see if I would be interested in reading and reviewing his novel in exchange for a free copy. I said, “Yes, please!” Thanks, David!
At its core, this novel can be easily summed up as a “revisionist fairy tale.” We’re introduced to Snow White as a widow. She’s been in a miserable state since the death of her husband. She’s apathetic, both to the needs of her kingdom, and to her own daughter, Princess Raven. Sure, it’s a fairy tale spin-off, but what Meredith is really doing is wrestling with the heavy emotions of bereavement. Initially I wanted to peg this book as “teen fantasy,” but now that I’m finished it feels more like “historical fiction” with a splash of adult romance.
Isn’t it funny how our culture’s familiarity with these Bros. Grimm fairy tales get us thinking of them as actual, historical figures?
As readers, we can’t help but enter a story with “Snow White” in the title with some preconceived notions. Fortunately, Meredith does a nice job of making clear the distinction between fairy tale and reality. Snow White’s childhood is tough. There’s no sugar-coating. We witness her struggles and see how her troubled past has carried over to her adulthood. Our protagonist is woman with a lot of heartache, not a romanticized queen. She’s the victim of serious physical and emotional abuse–which, I think, makes more of an impact on modern-day readers than the “poisoned apple” trick.
While Meredith pushes the boundaries by highlighting the dark sides of Snow’s life, I would have liked to see more development with the secondary characters. I was curious to learn more about her daughter Raven. Instead, we’re solely focused on Snow’s story. It’s told through flash-backs (not my favorite plot technique) and I think this decision really limits the exploration of her other relationships. Sure, we see how Snow meets Charming, and we learn about her hardships, and we see the dwarves briefly…but I was interested to hear about her role as a mother, so it was kind of a let-down when this side of her was glossed over.
Overall, though, I enjoyed the read. I was sorry to see typos (there are a handful, unfortunately), but I look forward to hearing more about his upcoming work inspired by Japanese legend and folklore: Shirobara Falls.
Bottom Line: A fun read for fans of Once Upon A Time or for fan-fiction fanatics ages seventeen and older.
Love This Thing
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
First Line: “In the aftermath of an athletic humiliation on an unprecedented scale–a loss to a tortoise in a footrace so staggering that, his tormenters teased, it would not only live on in the record books, but would transcend sport itself, and be taught to children around the world in textbooks and bedtime stories for centuries; that hundreds of years from now, children who had never heard of a ‘tortoise’ would learn that it was basically a fancy type of turtle from hearing about this very race–the hare retreated, understandably, into a substantial period of depression and self-doubt.”
Yes, this really is Novak’s opening line. “What a delightful sentence,” I said, arriving at the period. This guy is pitch-perfect. Seriously. I can’t remember having ever read something with sentences so snappy and smart. Like–every sentence.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised, though. Novak does scripts. He understands realistic dialogue. Still, I felt a sort of awe while reading this collection. I don’t really think I had expectations, but I sure was impressed. He does slice-of-life in the best way with stories that are fun, light, and refreshing. Since they don’t ask to be taken seriously, we readers don’t have to grope around for lofty “meanings.” They digest quickly; and I was entertained. (Coming from over-analytical me–that’s high praise!)
Novak’s humor really shines throughout the collection. Certain stories are followed by “discussion questions.” Although these prompts are relevant to the story at hand, they also function as the punch line. In other stories, the protagonists are celebrities. We follow Johnny Depp on a motorcycle in Hollywood, and join author John Grisham at his breakfast table in Virginia. It’s a clever spin to use cameo roles in writing.
My favorite stories include a young man trying to reunite with his grandmother in heaven, a secret discussions on the exact properties of dark matter, and a middle school kid learning about his parentage from a box of cereal. Novak’s content has a great range, and I see potential for him to break in to children’s literature. I’m thinking something similar to the world of Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories. Read Novak’s “‘Rithmetic” to get a better idea.
Then read them all! This collection is a winner.
Bottom Line: Buy the book and enjoy reading it over a week, then loan it to all the cool people you know and plan a time to meet en masse for those discussion questions.
Going, Going, Gone!
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
First Line: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
I read Gone Girl for a book club. I think it’s a popular title for book clubs. It’s been a crazy bestseller. But, like…we all know that a “popular” book does not necessarily constitute a great book, right?
As always, I’ll try to be blunt in my assessment. Gone Girl is only “okay.” It’s a thriller that explores how far people might go for love, for revenge. We have two narrators: Nick and Amy. He’s a little ho-hum, a little cliche. Amy’s voice (we meet her through diary entries) is somewhat more convincing, but her clever quips can feel a little forced.
Flynn creates some interesting hooks to keep us reading, but I’m not wowed or inspired. It’s an easy read–fitting for a beach trip or a book club discussion. For a more dynamic experience, though, I’d recommend The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. The writing style has a little more depth, the characters’ development is more complex, and the plot has exciting twists and turns that, in my opinion, far surpass “surprises” of Gone Girl.
Bottom Line: I’m thinking the upcoming film adaptation might be an improvement!