Sunday, September 30, 2012

Summer reading

Since the advent of the Internet, the number of books I read every year has sadly declined. (The number of books I continue to BUY, on the other hand, is quite another story...)  I still manage to read several books on every vacation, though. Even thought I now have a laptop that I bring along with me, there is still enough down time to accommodate both activities, along with numerous games of cards & dominos. ; )  While we were visiting my parents in late August, I read 4.5 books in two weeks -- two hard covers, one paperback & 1.5 on my e-reader. (I have since finished the other 0.5, lol.)  And I would gladly recommend any & all of them. : ) Here are a few details:

I don't remember which came first -- whether I saw or read an excerpt from Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking by Susan Cain -- but I was immediately intrigued. I consider myself an introvert, and I've long noticed how it's the extroverts of the world who tend to get more than their share of the spotlight. (During journalism school, we took both print & broadcast for the first two terms, then specialized in the third. Surprise! -- all the quiet, less talkative types wound up in the print newsroom, while the talkers and class clowns vied for attention in front of the TV cameras & behind the radio studio microphones.)

Cain does a great service by pointing out how our culture favours extroverts -- and the undervalued contributions made by introverts (who make up an estimated 1/3 of the population). She examines the role played by Dale Carnegie in the rise of the extrovert ideal and the culture of personality;  visits a Toastmasters Club, a Tony Robbins seminar,  Harvard Business School and Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church; examines the role that extroverts may have played in recent upheavals on Wall Street;  and uses specific examples from her own experiences, as well as other well-known introverts such as Rosa Parks, Steve Wozniak, Eleanor Roosevelt and Gandhi. She examines some of the scientific aspects of introversion -- research on brain and emotional development in children, whether introversion is genetic -- and even tackles the question of whether cultures can be introverted or extroverted (Asian cultures vs American, for example).

She even addresses the topic of introverts & extroverts online:
"Studies have shown that, indeed, introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online that their family and friends would be surprised to read, to say that they can express the "real me" online, and to spend more time in certain kinds of online discussions. They welcome the chance to communicate digitally. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice. The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend those relationships into the real world." (p. 63)

I marked one other passage that struck me as having great relevance for those of us going through infertility or loss, and the effort it sometimes takes for us to function in the "real" world -- the struggle to hide our emotions and maintain a brave face -- and how exhausting it can be. She tells the story of Brian Little, a highly popular, high-energy professor at Harvard, who is actually an introvert who recharges between classes at a rural retreat: 
"Double pneumonia and an overscheduled life can happen to anyone, of course, but for Little, it was the result of acting out of character for too long and without enough restorative niches. When your conscientiousness compels you to take on more than you can handle, you begin to lose interest, even in tasks that normally engage you. You also risk your physical health. "Emotional labor," which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. Professor Little also believes that prolonged acting out of character may also increase autonomic nervous system activity, which can, in turn, compromise immune functioning.
"One noteworthy study suggests that people who supress negative emotions tend to leak those emotions later in unexpected ways. [emphasis mine] The psychologist Judith Grob asked people to hide their emotions as she showed them disgusting images. She even had them hold pens in their mouths to prevent them from frowning. She found that this group reported feeling less disgusted by the pictures than did those who'd been allowed to react naturally. Later, however, the people who hid their emotions suffered side effects. Their memory was impaired, and the negative emotions they'd supressed seemed to color their outlook...." (p. 223)

Near the end of the book, Cain tackles some practical issues, such as how to communicate better with a partner or child who is the opposite of your own personality

Introverts like me will find this book affirming -- but extroverts will find it valuable too, in gaining insight into the introverts in their life and how to deal with them more effectively.

Next, I dove into How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, as recommended by Mrs. Spit and J9, my longtime penpal from NZ & occasional commenter here. 

I had never heard of Moran before, but I gather she is a well-known newspaper columnist in Britain. As the New York Times review describes it, the book is part memoir, part feminist polemic, written in that frank and insanely funny style that is unmistakeably British. I cannot imagine any North American woman (with the possible exception of Tina Fey) waxing lyrical and at length about the joys of... not waxing. Moran is anti-Brazilian (and I'm not talking about people who live in Brazil) and anti-stilettos, but pro-big girl panties and adamantly pro-choice (the mother of two children, she had an abortion when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant with a third, and writes about it without regret). 

I was particularly amused that the book included a chapter titled "Why you should have children" -- immediately followed by "Why you shouldn't have children" -- both chapters equally well argued. "If having children is hard work... in many ways, it's the easy option for a woman. Why?  Because if you have children, at least people won't keep asking you when you're going to have children," she writes in the "not" chapter. Sing it, sister.

I think what I loved most about the book was that Moran is an unabashed, self-proclaimed "Strident Feminist" -- and makes it sound like fun. If you think you aren't a feminist, or aren't sure, Moran has this to ask you:
"a. Do you have a vagina? and 
"b. Do you want to be in charge of it?
"If you said "yes" to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist."
There's so much more... I've only scratched the surface here. Go, find it, read it (but beware of reading in public -- you may get some peculiar looks when you start laughing out loud-- as you almost certainly will).

I'd read some rave reviews of Wild by Cheryl Strayed -- and, of course, it had that ultimate seal of approval, the Oprah Book Club pick. At first glance, it didn't seem to be a likely choice for me. While I appreciate a leisurely stroll through some nice scenery now & then, and have been camping in my childhood (in a camper, usually one with hard sides) -- hiking, tenting and roughing it in the wild -- solo -- with occasional scary encounters with snakes, frogs, bears, moose and lecherous strangers is generally not my thing.

Nevertheless, I devoured this book in less than two days. It's beautifully written and a highly compelling story -- not just your average travelogue or girl versus nature tale. Strayed envisioned her trip as a personal quest for salvation after the death of her mother and breakup of her marriage left her broke, homeless and teetering on the verge of heroin addiction.

She -- and we -- quickly realize how woefully unprepared she is for the challenge. As Strayed points out, today, hikers on the trail can go online to plan their trips and pick up tips from other, more experienced hikers. The was 1995, in the early days of the Internet. All she had was a guidebook, burning the sections for the parts of the trail she'd already covered to reduce the weight of her overstuffed backpack. (The book burning parts made me wince.)

This is an amazing book by an amazing writer, and I heartily recommend it.

I have confessed in the past to my weakness for Hollywood memoirs & bios. Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe is one of the better ones I've read in awhile (in the e-reader version).

It's not so much that Lowe's story is so unique -- average midwestern boy from a broken home in Ohio, gets bitten by the show biz bug, moves to California with his mother & brothers, finds fame, struggles with alcoholism, eventually gets sober and finds love and more success -- but he tells it very well, with humour and some keen observations. Lowe and his fellow Brat Packers are just a few years younger than me, so I can relate to the times he grew up in and the movies he made. "The Outsiders" was one of my very favourite books, growing up, and Lowe's stories of how the movie was cast and made make for some interesting reading, along with his stories of growing up in Malibu with his buddies, the Penn brothers (Chris & Sean) and the Estevez/Sheen brothers (Emilio & Charlie) -- whose dad would later play his boss on "The West Wing."   

I am generally in bed long before Craig Ferguson's The Late Late Show show comes on TV (11:30 p.m. my time), but whenever I do see him on TV, I always enjoy him, and I have fond memories of him as Drew Carey's department store boss, Mr. Wick. (Of course, I am a sucker for almost any message delivered in almost any kind of accent, lol.)  I knew he had acted in a few movies... but his past incarnations as a bartender, standup comedian and a drummer in a punk rock band (!!) came as a surprise.

I hugely enjoyed Ferguson's memoir, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot. Ferguson is a year younger than me, so I can relate to the times he grew up in, if not the setting. He grew up in a working class family in a dreary suburb of Glasgow, Scotland, and it's the stories of his youth and how he worked his way to Hollywood that are the most interesting parts of the book. Like Caitlin Moran, he has that unique British (oops, sorry, Scottish) sense of self-deprecating humour and way of expressing himself -- you can pratically hear him talking as you read. He is cheerfully frank in particular about his descent into alcoholism, what it did to him and how he eventually embraced sobriety. This is another one of those books you need to beware reading in public, because you are likely to wind up laughing out loud.

How about you? Any good reads this summer?


  1. love hearing about what others are reading. i haven't been reading enough lately, so i don't have any great suggestions. But i will be adding some of these to my reading list. I had been interested in that Rob Lowe bio and that hiking book looks great. Also, I always love books by feminists :)

  2. I read an excerpt from Rob Lowe's memoir in Vanity Fair last year. I think I'll add the full book to my library queue. : )

    The introvert book seems interesting, although I've read so many personality profiling books lately that it will be awhile before I can tackle another!

    I just finished reading Gone Girl, after waiting all summer for it (I think I was in the 200s in my library queue when I requested a hold). It's brilliant. Highly recommended!

  3. I'm going out on a limb here and put some of these on my Christmas list. (I won't say the library cause I never finish by the time the book is due to be returned). Interesting about Quiet - I can tell you from personal experience that when I repress negative emotions it does indeed leak out in unexpected ways.

  4. I've recently gotten hooked on Gillian Flynn. Just finished Gone Girl, and previously read Dark Places. I've now ordered Sharp Objects. Very dark reading, but entertaining. I just noticed that Ellen read it too.

  5. I've heard good things about "Gone Girl" -- was debating whether to get it now (I can get it for 40% off) or wait for the paperback. Of course, the price is probably about the same in the end. ; ) Glad to hear you both enjoyed it!

  6. I love book recommendations, so thanks! Might download one or two of those for my upcoming holiday (vacation).

    I'm currently reading Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, and loving it. (A recommendation from one of our fellow No Kidding bloggers).

    Are you on Goodreads? I'd love to link up there if you were ...

  7. @Mali: I am on Goodreads (under my real name, I think?), but I am not on there much. I thought it would be a great way to track my reading... and when I signed up, they made me check off all these different books I had read -- & then they showed up on my list for that year -- nevermind that I read some of them 20 years ago. Grrrrr. I do pop by now & then for book reviews & ratings.

  8. I always love your book recommendations...the introvert one is interesting to me because I have pursued extroverted jobs (PR) and social activities only to get exhausted and sick after big deadline projects....