Imagine

My last book of 2012 and fittingly the first book that I’ve read in 2013 is Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. This is a book that almost doesn’t exist. It had to be created before I could read it, but in this case, it also had to be found. Due to a scandal over the accuracy of some material, the book had been pulled from bookstores earlier in 2012. But not the library shelves apparently. Two copies waited for me at the local library, and it seemed an appropriate inspirational read for this time of year, if only because the author is young and ambitious enough to make me jealous.

Imagine examines how creativity works, alone and together, in the brain and across buildings. It chronicles some of my favorite stories that often appear in business textbooks on this subject – the making of 3M, the process of Pixar, the work of Shakespeare, who ironically might have pulled his material from questionable sources too.

Critics complain about the inaccuracies and the dumbed-down science, but what it lacks in accuracy it gains in accessibility. That’s important for his subject, because creativity works through the connections and the random associations that we so rarely write down. When we do, then we can debate their accuracy, which is the first step in this case. Lehrer chronicles how creativity works, and his audience determines how it survives in society.

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When You Reach Me

The next book selected for my holiday reading season is Rebecca Stead’s Newberry award-winningWhen You Reach Me. Though I don’t often read young adult fiction, the magical nostalgia of this novel drew me in. The book hinges on the favored middle school tale of A Wrinkle in Time, but in this case the sixth-grade protagonist navigates the streets of 1970s New York, not a different time dimension. Her experience is equally unnerving and full of interesting characters, from the laughing man on the corner to the classmates that waver before her eyes. The shift occurs in her own perception of situations and people, and it’s that shift and belief that allows her to comprehend the end, where one life begins as another one reaches its extraordinary end.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake

With the family gatherings required by the holidays now past or postponed due to weather, I’ve turned toward my second winter break past time – catching up on the reading that I’ve meant to do the rest of the year. Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake arrived at the top of my stack, as the most recent book club selection and an appropriate subject given the healthy dose of eating in recent weeks. As the title suggests, the book of essays meets the basic requirements of light reading, but leaves something to be desired. It’s not overly sweet, but peppered with sarcasm and wit.

Crosley approaches most essays from the stance of telling family secrets, usually her own, but they turn out to be no more sinister than a few dozen plastic ponies hidden under the kitchen sink. The eccentric collection of stories occupies a similar space, ranging from summer camp to first apartments, all complete with crazy characters. She handles small problems in unusual ways, with potentially catastrophic consequences, but when the inevitable doesn’t occur, the end becomes endearing.

The personal essays remain relatable, and therein lies their strength. They make no claims to be for everyone. But for a twenty-something writer who is finding her voice, they provide a taste for more to come.

The First Step through the Graveyard (Book)

I finally ventured into the world of Neil Gaiman through grown-up ghost story of The Graveyard Book. I had previously tried to read American Gods because of it’s references to familiar areas, but I couldn’t identify with any of the characters.  However, I fondly recalled watching Coraline, the movie, so I wanted to start with a similar story.  In this tale, a baby escapes his family’s murder by wondering into a graveyard, where he is adopted and protected from the man Jack, who continues to hunt for him.  By growing up in the graveyard, he occupies a space between being noticed and being completely forgotten, like a tombstone with the letters worn away.  He befriends a witch, learns to abide and trust his guardians and all of their forms, and makes his way through the world.  Until he is about 10, his lessons come from the cobweb-filled minds of the graveyard residents, but when he goes to school with his kind, he finds them cruel and needing a lesson of their own. He lures them into the graveyard and uses his powers to scare some sense into them, but a far more frightful creature is closer at hand and still trying to kill him.  The end is predictable and almost uneventful after the adventures that occur in each chapter.  In the end, perhaps the overarching lesson is a reminder about the the reality of invisible childhood friends.

A Curious Case of Character-Driven Novels

After a lengthy read for book club – Dr. Zhavigo –  I picked up something lighter to read.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time comes in at a mere 270 pages, but seems half that when reading on the Nook.  It’s completely character-driven, told in the voice of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrom who feels more at home in math class than with his parents.  He can calculate large numbers quickly, devises algorithms for daily activities such as getting stuck in a traffic jam, and is obsessed with prime numbers, to the point that his chapters are appropriately labeled by them, rather than the conventional cardinal numbers.

When Christopher discovers a dead dog in his neighbor’s yard, he embarks on a detective mission, similar to his beloved Sherlock Holmes books, where he learns the most about his own family and their relationships with the neighborhood.  While his world unravels, he becomes more focused on his upcoming math class, the only thing that stays constant throughout the book.  Even though Christopher has to keep his distance from people, it’s the characters in the book that make the story.  Readers become closer to them through each detail and each clue, as the author Mark Haddon reveals just enough to keep the story moving forward.

 

 

Wish You Well

Most of the time, I read books that provide an escape from the ordinary, everyday.  Occasionally though, I select a book that is meant to be familiar, and that’s the case with David Baldacci’s Wish You Well. The book chronicles the story of two children in the 1930’s who due to a family tragedy are sent to live with their great-grandmother in Southwest Virginia.  The location piqued my interest, particularly after my adopted hometown newspaper ran a story about how Marion was one of several towns under consideration for the movie setting.

The opening pages of the novel set the scene of a happy family, two children and their parents in a car, the whole world in front of them.  But after the accident, the story is confined to a few fictional small towns in Southwest Virginia, each linked by car, by horse, or by foot, with veins of coal running through the mountainside.  The pacing matches the children’s longing to grow up, but never seems to get there fast enough, and the overall plot takes a page from my favorite novel set in the same time, To Kill A Mockingbird.  The children gain a quirky friend; they face scorn in the town; someone dies; and a court case takes center stage.  All the while, they learn that it’s the character of the people in the town that matter.

I’m excited to see how one familiar town in Southwest Virginia takes a step back in history and transforms itself through the pages of Baldacci’s story.

Thoughts on Whole Living

Perhaps the new year has reinvigorated my goal to get organized, but in the past week,  my reading selections have been inundated by Martha Stewart. First came the January issue of Whole Living magazine, one of my favorite subscriptions.  The first issue of the year debuts their action plan, starting with a cleanse.  Though I admire the ambition of the plan, I know I could never follow through with the daily challenges and the restrictive diet, especially when each morning its a struggle to figure out what to pack for work.

Then there’s the larger goals that surface this time of year, like the idea of moving back to the farm.  My book choice, which I finished in a record three days, was Josh Kilmer-Purcel’s The Bucolic Plague, which depicts the year-long adventure of two men from New York City who buy a farm for their weekends and turn it into a full-time business.  They continue to chronicle their fabulous adventures at http://beekman1802.com/, with each blog post as perfectly picturesque as the next.  The connect to Martha in this case is that Kilmer-Purcel’s partner worked for Martha throughout most of the year.

I can honestly say that this has been my favorite read of 2012. Not only is the story inherently interesting, but the details are well written, from the cluster flies and ghosts that appear much to the dismay of the residents to the description of the townsfolk and the trials of being a farmer.  The narrative stems from the idea that everyone thinks they know what it’s like to be a farmer, even if it’s only from childish games, or from what we learned growing up leaving on the outskirts.  The “Beekman Boys” write their own method of farmer, complete with success, failures, and reasons to laugh out loud and think about it another day.

A Little Bit about Evolution

Each year, I look forward to the holiday break, not just for the time I have to spend with family, but also for the days without work that I can spend immersed in books.  This year, I loaded my Nook with Ape House my Sara Gruen and  rented the movie adaptation of Water for Elephants before New Years.  Water for Elephants ranks among my five favorite books, with it’s intertwined stories of a 1930s circus and modern day nursing home view of a veterinarian who has lived a very exciting life.  Unfortunately, the movie cuts out the elder story-line, resigning it to the beginning and end of the film.  It’s the interplay of the family ideals that makes the story, from the death of the parents in the beginning to the children missing the circus in the end that frame the young man finding his family in the unlikely place of a traveling circus.

I had high expectations for Gruen’s next novel, Ape House, and though some have given it less than stellar reviews, the story was equally fast paced with enough odd characters to keep it interesting.  Again, the animals steal the show, from the first few pages where we learn about the bonobos’ sign language and their ability to communicate with humans, much like the Polish-communicating elephant is the key to the prior novel.  I didn’t become as attached to the main human characters in this more recent book, which may be its biggest downfall, but its glimpse into our evolution and overview of linguistics from all its characters created a good story that also examines the meaning of family.

My next book choice examines family from a more personal angle and one in the public eye, through Diane Keaton’s memoir Then Again.  Like the actress, it hinges on being uniquely entertaining and endearing.  Though certainly removed by a generation from my own view of the world and the actors that I grew up with, it’s passages from Diane and her mother Dorothy touch upon reoccurring themes – finding love and succeeding in an evolving world.

 

 

Finding Georgia

I wanted a quick read this past week, something inspiriting for the season and lighthearted.  I scanned the end of the year best books list, but of course all of those books were already checked out from the library and had a waiting list of hundreds for the digital versions.  The bestseller that was still available, like a bulging-eyed Boston Terrier from the shelter, was Julie Klam’s You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness. The 140-pages chronicle the adoption of her first dog in her twenties, to the second dog that coincided with the birth of her daughter, and the numerous fosters that found their way into her home and into her stories.  Unable to adopt them all permanently, she joins a rescue organization and records the adventures.  Though the stories become a little repetitive by the end, their value lies in the shared experiences, which is the reason that other dog lovers pick up this book.  Perhaps it is because we believe the passage that Klam quotes “A very wise woman once told me that dogs find owners, not the other way around.”  So here’s our story:

When I pleaded with my parents that I needed a dog, they said no, not when I was 12, but when I was 23.  Growing up, we had a two family dog, the later I named Happy, for the date I received her – my 12th birthday. She stayed with us for 12 years, until the year after I graduated from college.  I was alone then, renting a room, figuring out my next step and next school.  Two years later, I had earned my master’s degree, married by college sweetheart, and settled into a two-bedroom townhouse that had the space for a pet.

We were running several 5k races at the time, an appropriately our dog stationed herself just across the road from one during a campus pet adoption event. Having registered for the event, we had an hour to warm-up, but only need a quarter of that time since it was a warm, early afternoon.  Several shelters circled the open field in tents, with crates stacked two tall and dogs of all ages and sizes wandering around leashed to colorfully clothed college students.  A red and white hound caught our attention, so we asked if we could walk her around. She followed us instantly.  We even jogged a few paces just to see if she could keep up.

She was skinny at the time and new to the leash.  In the two weeks since being found on the road, she had starting eating again, learned to sit on command, and had all of the necessary medical procedures.  She wasn’t a beagle, at least not completely, but she had the same boxy nose and partial coloring of red and white that made us assume that she had beagle or hound heritage.  She used her nose to take in the world, and we would later learn that her other half might be boxer, since she also loved to take that upright boxing stance for a quick punch or high-five.

We debated whether we could handle the addition to our lives.  She was larger than the dogs I had grown accustomed to and smaller than those my husband had a kid.  Her short hair meant that she would be low maintenance in the grooming department, but her keen nose meant that she would get into plenty of other messes.  She watched us intently, with large brown eyes, as we decided to take her home.

We left the adoption event with a blue rope leash and her fade yellow bandana that she would keep for several weeks as a sort of comfort blanket.  Her first bed was a damaged University of Georgia blanket that we willing sacrificed in case it should be ruined in our townhome in Clemson.  She curled up on it in our otherwise empty kitchen while we shopped for all of the essentials: a dog bed, crate, food, bowls, and toys.  We set up her new house and sat on the linoleum floor playing with the new items until she knew they were hers.  We threw names back and forth across the room with the tennis ball, until it came down to two: Scout or Georgia.  The former came from my favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and captured the 7 month-old pup’s inquisitive spirit.  The latter came from her home state and summed up her southern nature, sweet and proper, and completely fitting for our Georgia.

Better Homes and Gardens

On a recent trip, I selected Meghan Daum’s book, Life Would be Perfect if I Lived in that House, as my reading material for the cross-country flight.  The pick was partly the result of a search for a West Coast author and partly the result of finding a book to download from the D.C. library that didn’t have a two week or longer waiting list.  I love that the library allows it’s users to check out digital books for their e-readers (now including the Kindle), so I also downloaded a few travel guides in case I need to look up a good restaurant on a device other than my phone.

The book pick stemmed from my recent interesting in Better Homes and Gardens and other lifestyle and living magazines.  I can pour over the interior designs, make lists from the pages of items that I want to own one day, and basically expect my future living arrangements to sprout from the pages.  I added water to an issue once by accident when I set the magazine on the kitchen counter to cook chili by their recipe.  It shriveled instead of growing into a larger apartment with more counter space.

In her chronicles of various living spaces, Daum isn’t necessarily looking for more room either, but a place to call her own.  She loves the apartment in New York, the farm house rented in Kansas and the one later purchased there as well, and the Los Angelos abode.  She settles in on the transient American Dream, which for her is a literal dream of finding an extra room that she didn’t know existed, an realization that is at once exciting and disappointing. Though her focus on and fascination with the Plains, this book helped me stand grounded during the long flight, though it’s lessons may be less of a reality now than they were when Daum wrote most of it.