Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Reading

This summer I've been chewing through books like an industrial paper shredder so I thought I'd share the reviews I've put up over at in case anyone needs some suggestions.

This book was sent to me by a friend shortly after I received my initial cancer diagnosis.  She was one of the people who understood my sick brand of humor in dealing with such news and thought I'd enjoy this book.  I saved it for the times when I knew I'd be most scared and need a laugh more than ever.  It did not disappoint.

Lawson mines her completely bizarre upbringing and resulting mental health issues along with various life traumas for total comedic effect. When I read Augusten Burroughs' memoirs I felt like some sort of sick voyeur and failed to see his brand of humor. Jenny Lawson however, is just plain funny. How funny? Funny enough that as I sat in a cancer hospital awaiting an appointment to tell me how we'd be addressing my own malignancy I sat in the waiting room laughing hard enough to convulse silently with tears running down my cheeks at some of what this woman had written. If you can make me laugh that hard when I am in that scary a context you deserve five stars and more. Hats off to Jenny Lawson for not only being funny but having a point in the end about accepting where you came from so you can move forward and even return to find the value in the bizarre.

 This book was recommended by Logophile.  If I needed very much to laugh before surgery this book helped me cry (in a healthy cathartic way) after surgery.  

This should be required reading for medical students. Doctors should pass this out free to patients facing either chronic or life-threatening illness. Remen shares stories of her own illness and stories of patients with whom she has walked through peaks and valleys of their health battles. There is a very personal touch here allowing her to reach her goal of this being a story telling session at the kitchen table with a trusted friend.

Remen shows respect for both patients and doctors as vulnerable human beings because she has been on both sides, in fact still was as of the writing of this book. There is hope that connection and honesty about mutual vulnerability layered with dignity and respect promotes healing in ways more than physical and that it is all tied together.

I read this one concurrently with the last book on the recommendation of a yoga teacher who has gone through serious illness.

I think it will take me a while to process this and sift out my final opinion of it but there are certainly a great many valuable concepts here for those facing either chronic or life-threatening illness. I've read some criticisms saying this book reduces illness to a blame the victim stance. Since Siegel is exploring the mind-body connection and part of the process involves patients processing why they "needed" a particular disease in order to make the changes necessary to live more fully I can see why some folks would respond to this book in that way. However, I do think it is ultimately hopeful in that it empowers a person to see they are not passive recipients of either disease or cure, that one can participate in and influence one's own outcome.

 By the time I finished the above books I was heading to the beach and needed something with a completely different tone.  This mystery written by Coopernicus fit the bill quite nicely.

I'm not typically a reader of mysteries but I quite enjoyed this one. Chynna Lennox does not quit and I couldn't stop reading. Cooper creates a crew of realistically flawed main characters and truly deviant villains. Even with the villains he provides more than flat explanations for their deviance which allows the reader to view the horror they perpetrate as not just gratuitous plot twists but the consequences of being caught in a tragic downward spiral. On the other hand, Lennox and her friends battle their demons and though we know those demons will not back down any time soon the reader knows, neither will this gritty protagonist

 After a mystery I was ready to laugh again but have some food for thought as well.  Lewis Black worked well.

While the title suggests Black has little faith and though he lays out his gripes against various organized religions he does reveal his own brand of faith, which merely has little to do with dogma. I know plenty of very theologically conservative people who would react as he describes a former classmate's reaction (a letter seeking to lay out the evangelical Christian road to heaven). I'd like instead to see them actually read this book and consider some of what Black says because whether one agrees with his conclusion or not it provokes thought and gives some good laughs in the process. Though I do adhere to significantly more orthodox belief than Black does I fully agree with him when he says we all need more thought and more laughter in our lives. Furthermore, I contend that being angered or threatened by mere differing viewpoints is indication that one actually lacks faith in whatever point of views they are most rabidly "defending."

 Since I feel the need to make some changes in my own life. I am a great fan of A.J. Jacobs and his willingness to engage radically with the ideas he chooses to explore. In this volume his quest is to become the healthiest man alive. He experiments with various diets, exercise programs, and other life-style modifications which remove toxins from his environment, change the way he does his desk job, and gets him meditating. He offers up the evidence provided for each change he makes, often tries out conflicting philosophies, and tracks his own reactions and progress. During the two year project he loses his 94 year old grandfather and an aunt in her 60s (a woman extremely devoted to an organic lifestyle). Jack LaLanne also dies in the process of Jacobs trying to schedule an interview with him.  These events provide further grist for the mill as he considers what it best.

What I appreciate most is that though Jacobs gets extreme in his experimentation he ultimately seeks a middle road, a sense of balance in life. This is also not a how-to book written by some guru who lives up in the ether somewhere. Jacobs starts out as a self-described semi-squishy guy simply looking to get healthier so he can stick around longer for his family. In the end he has made significant improvements to his health and found what works best for him in terms of creating habits that keep him well but don't distance him from those he loves. Along the way he shares his frustrations, successes, and insights in an authentic way.

I know I am late to the party with this book but I finally got around to reading it after it languished in my "to read" pile for a long time.

This memoir is rich with lessons borne from self-examination and a willingness to enter into the world of another when Simon agrees to spend a year riding the city buses with her sister Beth, who has mental retardation. By engaging in the routines of her sister, Simon gains insight into not only her sister's thinking but her own. The result is a discovery of an unexpected but loving community as well as greater understanding of her sister. Perhaps the greatest lesson for Simon and all of us is just being willing to take a journey and be open to wherever it may lead, those we encounter along the way, and what we can learn from our fellow travelers. Beautifully told.

This was a good, fun, easy read while sitting on the beach.

Tougias gives a gently humorous reminiscence of his early years owning a very rustic cabin in very rural Vermont. He shares how his attitude changed from wanting to conquer his environment to wanting to learn from it and peacefully co-exist. It's a brief but sweetly unpretentious modern-day "Walden."  

 I really enjoyed the last run of books and I knew I'd eventually hit a clunker.  For me, this was the book to end the run though someone else may enjoy it more.

Oppenheimer was a verbally precocious child who had a a serious mean streak (in fact he went so far as to cause a friend's father to be investigated by police after a false accusation) and few friends as a result of that combo. In junior high he found the debate club to be his saving grace in allowing an outlet for his argumentative ways and an opportunity to make friends. Through high school and college being on a debate team was a major part of his life. Oppenheimer obviously has a great facility with words but for a fellow so willing to let us know about his prowess as a debater he never persuaded me to care very much about his story or demonstrate that beyond the debating arena he ever learned to apply the lessons his mentors sought to impart. He just comes across as a privileged brat who can't get his head out of his own ass. A solid "Meh."

 After that I needed to have my faith in humanity restored.  Kate Braestrup did so wonderfully.

Braestrup was married to a Maine police officer who planned to leave the force to become a minister. Instead he was killed in a car accident and she went on to become a chaplain to the Maine Game Warden Service. She explains why the Game Wardens might need a chaplain (lots of dangerous or upsetting search and rescue missions), how she arrived there, and what she does.

At no time does she descend into maudlin sentimentality or an overestimation of her significance but neither does she shy away from sharing her own pain or that which she witnesses, nor does she underestimate the power of simply listening to people. It seems she strikes a beautiful balance both in life and in writing by just bearing compassionate witness to the complexity of both tragedy and triumph along with a dash of gently self-effacing humor.


Secret Agent Woman said...

A few of those appeal to me, I'll check amazon and the library. One of the funniest books I've read lately is "The Devil's in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood." (Jennifer Traig). It's about dealing with OCD (specifically religious OCD) but she manages to tell her story in a way that made me laugh throughout the book.

Beach Bum said...

Sounds like some good stuff! I wish I could say my summer reading list was as equally long and deep. My last book was an adventure novel by a no-name author I bought using my Kindle.

Bijoux said...

Good selection and reviews! I've read all of AJ Jacobs' books. Love him! OTOH, I hated the Lawson book. I had high hopes for it, but for me, dropping the f bomb in every other sentence does not make one funny. Glad you were able to see past that and enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

I loved "Let's Pretend this Never Happened". And "Riding the Bus" has been on my to read list for a while. I think it'll be my next.

I'm reading "We are Al Completely Beside Ourselves" right now. Really good.

Daryl said...

not a reader of non fiction ... i am going right now to to get twisted ties, thats my kinda read, thanks!

Jackie said...

Loved reading your opinions of these books.
I am going to get a couple to read, and I thank you for that!

Leave It To Davis said...

I don't read much....the spare time I have I spend reading blogs and writing on mine. Once I no longer work, I will read again.

I do love Lewis Black though. I have listened to ALL his cds and laugh at his humor...and so much of what he says makes sense. I was horrified by his choice of words in the beginning, but then realized he just grew up talking like that...and to just overlook his profanity. I love his comedy. I would love to read this book!

Stephen Hayes said...

I'm sure everyone came find something to read and enjoy, or benefit from, in this list of worthy books.

(M)ary said...

I listened to Here if You Need Me while jogging back in 2011. Loved it!(and ironically, I could've used her rescue skills when I jogged ethe half marathon in 2011...limped, I should say instead of jog.)
I am glad to hear you are doing well and reading, reading, reading.

Hilary said...

You write a fine review, Michelle. It sounds like some of these books were very good medicine for you. I'm glad for that. A couple of them appeal to me so on to my wish list they go.

Suldog said...

Thanks for the great bunch of reviews. I'll definitely pick up one or two of these.

I'm pleased to see that Cooper has been published. Long ago, around the first couple of years I blogged, we shared links. I'm not sure why he dropped off of my sidebar and me off of his; probably some fault of mine. He's a good writer, though, and deserving of some success.

Jim C said...

a great list, if i do say so myself. Blogger is doing that dance of death with wordpress again so hopefully this will appear

Craver Vii said...

The last twelve books I checked out of the library were all about photography, especially wedding photography.

Braestrup sounds like a remarkable person. I have a friend who is the widow of a police officer.

I'm glad you poo-pooed Wisenheimer because mean people don't deserve praise for behaving badly.

I have a different take on the idea of being angered by different viewpoints. Yes, it could possible be a reaction by someone of small faith, but not always. For the defense of my position I appeal to the examples of many heroes of the faith in the Scriptures. They had more faith than your average Joe, but they honored the Lord by not putting up with ungodly rubbish. Zeal for the Lord is a virtue... provided that it is not just a zealot looking for an opportunity to vent.

The idea that resonates with me the most in this set is Riding the Bus With My Sister. I like that even more than the first two tearjerkers--hilarious and cathartic. Simon conducted an excellent experiment, and I like when people do that kind of compassionate learning.

~Tim said...

Be careful! Just because your neck didn't fall out doesn't mean your eyes can't pop right out of your head.... ;-)

Kat said...

You've been doing quite a bit of reading! Me too. I don't do nonfiction that often (I read to escape) but many of the books on your list interest me. Thanks for the reviews and recommendations!