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Book Review: The Geography of Bliss (via Eat Pray Love)

August 28, 2013 Leave a comment

A few years ago, a coworker of mine handed me a copy of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and said to me, “Oh, you’re just going to love this!” I assume she thought that because she had loved it and it has Italy in it. For some reason, people assume that if something is slightly Italy-related that I’m already an expert on it or that it will automatically titillate my senses.

Unfortunately, when I handed the book back to my coworker a few weeks later, the best I could do was say, “Well, she is a good writer” and luckily, that was enough to pacify her.

Let me see if I can explain what I found so repulsive…the book starts off with Gilbert having gone through some sort of existential crisis that involves her crying on the floor of her bathroom while her mean, awful husband sleeps the Sleep of the Ages in the next room, blissfully unaware that his soon-to-be-ex-wife is miserably huddled in a ball, her face pressed against cool tile. Her life is one big pile of suck and it is all his fault, so she insists upon a divorce and ends up giving him EVERYTHING just so she can escape the marriage. She moves in with her sister, then gets an idea to go travelling for a year–to Italy, India and Indonesia–in order to rediscover and reground herself.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “But Amadei, you just said that she gave her ex everything. How will she ever afford to spend a year not working?”

Easy peasy, she’s going to use the money she got as an advance for writing a book about her journey to self-discovery.

Record scratch.

And that’s the short story of how she lost me less than a chapter into the book. I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The entire book felt disingenuous. How could she take money for a book about her own personal discovery without having first had the discovery? What if she had gone on this yearlong trip and learned absolutely nothing about herself?

I spent the entire time wondering, “Did she really learn anything about herself or did she just write the book she thought people would want to read?”

Why am I bringing up Eat Pray Love now after reading it so many moons ago? Because, as I was going through the books on my wishlist, seeing which ones I could get from the library, I came across The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner. I just finished it and it kinda reminded me of Eat Pray Love in the way that seeing a ball of yarn might remind you of a scarf, but actually having the scarf is so much better than just having a ball of yarn (unless you’re a knitter in which case you make a scarf out of the yarn, so you get to have your cake and eat it too and I’m digressing again, aren’t I?).

For one thing, Weiner doesn’t go on a vision quest to find his own happiness, though that is part of what prompts his journey. He knows he’s a grump. He knows he’s generally sad and dissatisfied. He’s not looking to change that, exactly, but maybe to discover why he’s that way…if he happens to find that answer as he goes along.

He started by looking at different places and what makes the people in those places happy (or unhappy in the case of Moldova). At the start, he went to Rotterdam where the World Database of Happiness (no, really) exists. He interviewed the scientist responsible for the WDH and spent some time examining the results, smoking a little Moroccan hash, and deciding that even though the Dutch are very happy, but it’s not the type of happiness for him.

From there he examines happiness in Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, and India before finally coming back to America, all the time trying to examine what those places have in common.

What I liked best about it is that he didn’t have any overarching epiphany about how he should live his life to be happier. Ultimately, he decides that there are no concrete rules to what makes people happy:

Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.

To venture any further, though, is to enter treacherous waters. (322)

So he asks a happiness researcher (again: no, really; that’s someone’s job) for an explanation and is told that there’s more than one way to be happy. “Of course,” writes Weiner and you can almost imagine him smacking his forehead. “How could I have missed it? Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own ways” (322).

Because there was no pressure to have an epiphany, the whole exercise in searching for happiness felt more genuine. He researched happiness. He didn’t necessarily get the answer he wanted, but he did figure out a small part of it–that it really does depend on the path that you chose, one of the many to happiness or one of the many to sadness.

As for me, my huge takeaway was to skip over Italy, India, and Indonesia and head to Iceland, cold but happy.

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Book Review: The Humanity Project

August 19, 2013 Leave a comment

I’m going to be uncharacteristically brief to start this review: I didn’t like The Humanity Project by Jean Thompson.

Which really bothers me because the person who suggested it normally gives good recommendations AND the premise of the book was really intriguing. From the blurb on the book, I thought the book was about a girl who moved halfway across the country to live with her estranged father and a rich old woman started The Humanity Project to answer the question, “Can you pay people to be good?”

What I got was an attempt by Thompson to interweave a bunch of characters together and not succeed particularly well. I also never got an answer to the question, so the entire novel felt like Thompson took a premise, then tried to write about it, but never got around to actually dissecting the problem itself–some of the characters literally stage a conference to discuss the question as a way to avoid actually trying to answer it.

A conference. What could be more boring than a conference? Well, I’m about to get spoiler-tastic after the jump, so you might find out.

Read more…

Book Review: Glory Be

August 5, 2013 Leave a comment

After I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, I wrote a strange sort of not-review of the book to try and help myself understand what was going on with people’s reactions to it. It’s a time and place in history that, as a white Yankee, I have little experience with–almost every history class I took in high school got us from Columbus landing to just after the Civil War then petered out fantastically as the weather started to turn hot. I think Junior year might have actually made it to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but…yeah…not a lot of focus.

Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood was recommended to me by a friend along with a stack of others, so I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about. Once I started reading it, however, I realized that it’s a spiritual little sister of The Help–it deals with the same type of prejudice in the same kind of small town in Mississippi–but it’s for kids.

The protagonist is eleven-almost-twelve-year-old Gloriana June Hemphill (known as Glory) who is eagerly awaiting her birthday party that she always has at the Hanging Moss, MS community pool. Unfortunately for her, it’s the summer of 1964 and racist members of the community have decided that it’s better that they close the pool than have the African-American side of the town be able to use it. She befriends a Yankee girl from Ohio named Laura Lampert who has moved to town with her mother who is starting a Freedom Clinic so that the African-American people of the town can have medical care they can afford.

Ultimately, Glory writes a scathing letter to the town newspaper about why she thinks the pool shouldn’t be closed. Everyone keeps telling her that it’s closed because there are cracks in the pool that need to be fixed.

Unfortunately for Scattergood, I don’t believe that Glory could have written the letter she wrote. I mean that from a completely literary standpoint, though. Throughout the book, Glory seemed to me to not really understand what was going on–why her BFF Frankie’s dad wanted the pool closed; why Laura’s mom was helping to open the clinic; why her family’s maid, Emma, would tense up when Glory would press her about why the pool was closed; why the librarian was taking a stand by not taking seats out of the library.

She seemed so focused on insisting that there were no cracks in the pool or holes in the fence that when I actually got to the letter and it specifically said, “The people in this town dumb enough to agree to shut down a pool to keep Negroes out–and lying about it by saying it’s the pool that needs fixing–they are the fools who can’t see,” I was a little flabbergasted. It seemed completely out of character. For half the book, she seemed like a naive eleven-year-old who couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t try to just get along, then wham, blindsided by a Letter to the Editor.

At least after that, she seemed a little less naive.

It was an interesting read and I can imagine that it would be a good introduction to children about what the Civil Rights movement was all about. NPR just had it as their Backseat Book Club pick in July, so if you want to hear a better summary than then one I gave as well as some input from the author, I highly suggest giving this a listen.

My only other nagging question I have about the book is…well…if her birthday is July 4th, why is her middle name June?

Self-Checkout: A Quest for an American Savage

August 4, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ll admit it–when it comes to bookstore brand loyalty, I don’t really have any. I’ll shop wherever the book I want happens to be sold. If I don’t want it right away and it’s cheaper on Amazon, I’ll go with Amazon. However, I will also admit that I preferred to go to Borders for one simple reason: I could look up the books myself. Now that they have gone out of business, I have to ask one of the employees for assistance…and that bothers me.

Maybe it’s because I grew up as an only child or maybe it’s because I spend most of my time at home, alone with the animals, but I am definitely introverted. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy people. Sure, I’m a little shy, but I’m not an extreme case. I go to parties and bars and really huge conventions with only mild anxiety and it’s easily cured by spending some time alone.

Maybe I have some sort of bizarre fear of rejection, but on the Top Ten Things Amadei Dislikes Doing list, “interacting with employees” is probably second on the list right behind “calling places to make appointments/reservations.” Maybe I’m just more self-sufficient than other people. Or maybe I need a therapist.

But what that all that boils down to, more succinctly, is that I’m probably the person self-checkouts at the grocery store were made for.

Last Thursday, I was at the mall and thought, “Dan Savage has a new book out and every time I hear about it, I want to read it a little bit more, so I’m going to just buy it.”

I went off to the only bookstore (Barnes and Noble) that exists and, lo, I could not find the book. It wasn’t in the biography section and it wasn’t in the Gay & Lesbian Studies section. I checked every table and end-cap in the vicinity to no avail, but the website said that the store had it, so I realized, to my dismay, that I would have to ask. Ugh. Can’t I go through some sort of really painful process where they draw the thought right out of my mind?

But I did it anyway.

I went up to a cluster of employees and when one asked me if I needed help, I said, “Do you have a copy of American Savage?”

“That sounds familiar,” responded the employee, his graying ponytail flapping in the breeze. Okay, it wasn’t really flapping as there was no breeze, but it sounded better than “his graying ponytail hung lifeless down his back,” though that would be more accurate. He typed a few things on the computer and found what I was asking for because I am the 1% of bookstore patrons who do not ask for help by asking for “the blue book with the guy on the cover that was on TV this morning. You work here, I’m sure you know it.”

Upon looking at the entry that popped up, the guy said derisively, “Oh. That guy. Yeah, it’s over here.”

Of course, it’s that tone of derision, that feeling that I did something wrong by asking for this book, that keeps me from wanting to actually ask for help from employees. I don’t know what his problem with Dan Savage is. Maybe he’s a right-wing Christian who thinks Dan is a horrible person for being homosexual. Maybe most people who ask for Dan’s books are rude to him. Maybe he’s gay and Dan once snubbed him in a gay bar in Chicago. The only one who knows is that employee.

So–more, better, different? More: Not being an asshole; Better: Just show me where the book is; Different: how about his entire attitude? Yeah, he took me to the Social Sciences section (literally two feet from where I had been looking in Gay & Lesbian Studies. TWO MORE FEET AND I WOULD NOT HAVE HAD TO ASK) and put the book in my hands like a good little worker bee, but he couldn’t even hide how much he didn’t want to do it.

Which, really, is all I ask from retail employees. Just hide the fact that you hate me. I hid the fact that I hated my customers when I worked at Waldenbooks. It’s the great cycle of retail life.

light touches

One day, cranky retail employee, the sun will set on my time here and will rise with you as the new king.

Because, honestly, the more books I buy from Amazon, the closer you are to losing your job, so be nice. It costs you nothing and leaves me with less anxiety.

On a lighter note, this is what printed out with my receipt. Really? There’s nothing else in the store you could suggest? Really?

Image

You may also like The Repeating Dictionary of Repetitive Words Book of Synonyms and Thesaurus Wordbook.

The full title of that middle ones is Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

…which has nothing to do with anything Dan Savage or Marc Maron has written ever as far as I can figure out from its Amazon page. Must be what they’re pushing this month.