Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

What's in a title? Ha ha. Last month, Books & Beer Club was selecting an inspirational book to read for our November meeting. November is the month we read inspirational books. I googled "inspirational books for book clubs" and this book showed up on two lists. I even made a joke about it. Two latecomers showed up after I'd already mentioned this title and made my joke. So they had no idea we'd already laughingly tossed this around. One of them said that a friend of hers had read the book and really liked it. That it's a popular book and maybe we should read it. And that's how this month's book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson was selected.

I think we're going to have a good discussion tonight. But I'm really on the fence about how I feel about this book. Is it a self-help book? Is it simply Mark Manson's memoir? And is it inspirational?

Manson makes lots of really good points about picking your battles, prioritizing in life. He repeatedly brings up entitlement. And while I agree with what he says about entitled people (clarifying that there are both negative and positive senses of entitlement), I had some trouble reading this knowing that someone my son's age is handing out this type of advice. And I'm still confounded about how Manson became an expert. Maybe I resent that he gets to make his living blogging and speaking, something that I might have preferred doing over what I actually ended up doing over the years. I'm not sure.

Not only that, but he had some really horrendous fails before he "came out on top."

There was nothing earth shattering in this book. Lots of commonsense life lessons that I learned over time. Lessons that I believe you need to experience rather than simply hear about, especially if you're young. But I did enjoy some of the anecdotes that he used to make his points.

Would I recommend this book? I'm not sure. I'm really not sure who Manson's targeted audience is supposed to be. If we have a good discussion at book club tonight, I'll highly recommend it for book clubs. Otherwise, I'm really not sure how I feel. Sorry.

Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate

Last spring, after nearly a year of having no Adult Education at my synagogue, I decided that I'd take it upon myself to create a kind of Adult Education Light program. I mean, who am I to teach anything very, very serious. So far we've had a cooking class, we've watched and discussed a documentary, and in January we are going to have a book discussion. I'm hoping it will be the start of a Jewish-themed book club.

First order of business, after selecting the date to meet, was selecting the book to discuss. I asked a few of my friends for suggestions and go what you'd expect. Mostly books about the Holocaust. Those books are popular and abundant. (One year nearly all the books my community book club read were Holocaust books until someone said enough was enough. I don't know that we've read one in a long time.) But I wanted something different for this group of readers. I wanted something that might seem more relevant to us.

I started looking at lists of Jewish books, mostly from the Jewish Book Council. I read description after description of novels. I now have a short list of other books I might want to read on my own. The description of Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate by Letty Cottin Pogrebin made me think that this book might be the perfect book.
Feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin's second novel follows Zach Levy, the left-leaning son of Holocaust survivors who promises his mother that he'll marry within the tribe. But when Zach falls for Cleo, an African American activist grappling with her own inherited trauma, he must reconcile the family he loves with the woman who might be his soul mate. A New York love story complicated by legacies and modern tension of Jewish American and African American history, SJM Seeking explores what happens when the heart runs into the reality of politics, history, and the weight of family promises.
What Jewish person living today can't relate to some of that? Not only that, this novel combines so many different topics into one neat and concise storyline. How important is it to marry someone Jewish? As I was reading Single White Male, I was able to imagine conversations with people who might attend this new Jewish book club. I wish we were meeting sooner than the middle of January. I'm so anxious for this discussion.

Lots of Zach's issues stem from being the child of Holocaust survivors. So those would ordinarily not be issues faced by young adults the ages of my children. But my children's father was the child of Holocaust survivors and exhibits many of the traits of a survivor. That just made for one more connection that other people my age might not have been able to make.

I loved the book. I'm excited to discuss it. I hope this kicks off our Jewish book club with a positive start. And I'd highly recommend this novel for any other Jewish book club.

Our Souls at Night

I'm not sure what I thought Our Souls at Night by Ken Haruf was about, but I was anticipating a really dark story. It wasn't that at all.

The premise of the story is interesting. Two neighbors (I hesitate calling them elderly because they aren't that much older than me) lost their spouses many years ago. The neighbors knew each other but weren't friends. The woman shows up at the man's house one day and asks him if he'd like to have sleepovers at her house, not for the sex. Just for the company. It doesn't seem to take much thinking about it on his part. And that's pretty much where the story begins.
"But that's the main point of this being a good time. Getting to know somebody well at this age. And finding out you like her and discovering you're not just all dried up after all."
Interesting, right? Think about it. If you're of a certain age, how often do you get to develop a relationship with someone new? Think about the getting to know you phase. What a great feeling. Once you reach that certain age, the prospect of opening up to someone new can be terrifying, a feeling expressed by some of the other women in the neighborhood.

We learn about the marriages that Addie and Louis had. The reader is able to draw conclusions about how Addie and Louis ended up where they were at the start of the novel from bits and pieces they share with each other about their pasts.

I think this is a perfect book for my community book club to discuss. I'm one of the younger members of the book club, and fortunately, I still have my husband. But would I do what Addie does if I were in her position at her age? Frankly, I don't think so. In all my single years, I was okay climbing into bed to go to sleep by myself. My loneliness would come at dinner time more often than any other time of day. Then again, you really open yourself up when you're in bed, not quite asleep yet. You'd probably develop a truer relationship than you would just chatting over dinner. And that's what I think the title of the novel means. Our Souls at Night are our true souls. I'm really curious to hear what some of the other women in the book club have to say.

The language used by Kent Haruf is very sparse, but the story is very deep. There's not a whole lot of action. But by "eavesdropping" on Addie and Louis' conversations, we really get to know them very well.

There are three other significant characters in the novel. Ruth, an elderly woman, who is Addie's friend and another neighbor. Addie's son, Gene. And Gene's son, Addie's grandson, Jamie.

I don't want to give away the ending, but I was disappointed. No, that's not true. I was saddened. Saddened that lots of folks stories end up the way this one did.

I'd highly recommend Our Souls at Night. And I hope to add a little bit to this post after my book club discusses this next month.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Storyteller's Secret

More than 24 hours after finishing Sejal Badani's The Storyteller's Secret, I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

The novel jumps between the story of Indian Amisha's story during the time of British rule in India, being retold by her beloved servant, Ravi, and the more current story of Jaya, Amisha's American granddaughter. Jaya has just suffered her third miscarriage. Her mother, Lena, had just received a letter that her father in India was ailing and she should come soon. Lena refuses to go. Jaya needs an escape so she goes to India instead.

Amisha's story is typical. The expectations of marriage and women in the mid 20th century India, relations between Indian and British towards the end of British rule, the place of the caste system. Jay's story is pretty typical, too. Modern woman, career choices, family choices, family relationships. In both cases, pretty predictable. The real story was the intersection of these two stories. But even that was pretty predicable.

Jaya's story takes place in the summer of 2000. She's a journalist and a blogger. It is important that Jaya is a writer. It's a connection to Amisha who loved to tell stories and to write. More than that was just not necessary. A few of her blog posts were included in the book and they added nothing to the story. Plus, from my recollection, blogs weren't quite mainstream in 2000 and I can't imagine reading something like her blogs at that time.

It was more of a romance than women's fiction within the genre of historical fiction. It wasn't a bad book. It just wasn't a great book.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Alternate Side

After reading two memoirs in a row, and a non-fiction book before that, I was in the mood for a good novel. Browsing the shelves on Overdrive, the title Alternate Side jumped off the screen at me. Upon closer examination, I saw that Anna Quindlen, an author I've enjoyed in the past, had written it. Borrow. Checkout. Download. It was on my bookshelf.

In case you're not familiar with alternate side of the street parking, it's a huge deal in New York City. On most streets, once or twice a week, you have to move your car from one side of the street to the other (good luck with that) so the street cleaners can come thru. In my opinion, the streets rarely look any better after this cursory cleaning. But who knows what they would look like if the sweepers never came thru. I frequently speak to my son (who lives in Brooklyn) on the phone as he's doing the alternate side parking dance. I left NYC as a young adult, had to deal with the whole alternate side thing when I was up in Brooklyn caring for my dad a few years ago. It quite often brought me to tears. It made me swear that if were ever to live in New York City that I wouldn't own a car.

Alternate side of the street parking doesn't really factor into this novel by Anna Quindlen much at all. But aspiring to get a parking spot in a private lot on the dead-end block where Nora and Charlie live does play a huge role. And what happens in the parking lot is the climax of the plot.

Alternate Side is about Nora's love affair with "the city." Nora's daughter, Rachel, is in college in New England. She brought up the fact that New Yorkers call Manhattan "the city" as if it's the only city in the world. And it's not. Yet Nora loves New York City, even as she acknowledges things about it that are not so lovable. Although she keeps those things to herself. Why? Because Alternate Side is about Charlie's desire to leave New York City and to live somewhere else. He's got a list of grievances a mile long and Nora didn't want to give him more reason to want to leave New York.

Rachel, when talking about her father and the places he'd like to move to, says, "I also think if you move to the places he's talking about moving you'll scarcely see me because why would I go there?" O-U-C-H! Is that how my children and stepchildren feel?

I left New York City shortly before the time Nora moved to Manhattan as a young college graduate. She loved it for all the reasons that I fled. And she stayed because of those reasons, and because in the interim, New York City became a much more pleasant place to live, as long as you had the money. She and Charlie had the money.

Most of the people that Nora knew were transplants like herself and Charlie, who moved into the city as young adults because that was the place to be to succeed. But her kids, her kids were able to say that they were born in New York City!

"You should get her mac-and-cheese recipe, Mom," Ollie had said once.
"Oh, my goodness, honey, that whole party is catered."
"Really?" Rachel said."It doesn't feel like it is." Which was perhaps the nicest thing a born-and-raised Manhattan child could say about a meal.
Nora and Charlie lived on a dead-end street with mostly old Victorian houses. Their house had been owned for almost ninety years by a single family. (Did I ever tell you that the family house I sold last December was my family's home from 1935 until 2014?) Some of the folks on Nora and Charlie's block still called their house The Taylor House, even though Nora and Charlie Nolan had lived there for many years.

Other themes explored in the novel are neighborhood dynamics, professional ambition, marriage, motherhood, friendship. Be sure, these are no less important than Nora's love affair with New York City. And these are universal themes But after reading reviews on goodreads, I do believe that you have to be very, very familiar with New York City, what you sacrifice and what you gain, in order to find the book realistic at all.Taken out of New York City, most of the characters are one-dimensional, but within the context of the city, they seem much more full-faceted.

I would not recommend this latest from Anna Quindlen to most. But I have recommended it to a certain friend. And I can't wait to hear what she has to say about it.

the year of less

I wish I could remember where I first learned about the year of less: how I stopped shopping, gave away my belongings, and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store. But the idea totally intrigued me. Living less. After making 3 moves in less than 18 months just over 8 years ago, I decided that less is more. With each subsequent move, I got rid of more and more belongings. In retrospect, I was a bit overzealous in getting rid of things as I was moving. Reading the year of less did make me feel a bit better about some of the things I still long for today and the fact that they are gone from my life.

Cait Flanders is in her 20s when she decides to embark on a year-long shopping ban. Her previous projects had been to get out of debt, stop drinking and get healthy (lose weight and become more active). She'd succeeded at all three of those. So when she couldn't find some kitchen utensil that she was looking for, she decided that she had way too many things and it was time to minimize.

I'm at a totally different stage of life than Cait Flanders and she's much more of a "black and white" person than I am - and I suppose a heck of a lot more OCD - yet I nodded my head in affirmation as I was able to relate to her struggles with consumerism. I'm impressed with much of what she has learned as a much younger age than when I learned similar lessons.

Cait is an avid reader. She used to buy whatever book she thought she wanted to read. But unlike in the "old days" when I was in my late 20s and loved buying books, I had to go to a book store and weigh just how much I wanted to part with my cash before I left the store with a purchase. In today's age, she was purchasing her books online, usually buying more than just one book to make sure that she could get shipping and handling down to free. Plus lots of her purchases were impulsive. It's admirable that she found good homes for most of her books that she gave away, but why was there never any mention of the library? I was in my mid-30s when I realized that I wanted to spend any "book money" on books for my kids and that I could get anything, or almost anything, I wanted from the library.

Cait realizes that a lot of the clothing in her wardrobe, pre-purge, is clothing that she bought because she wanted to be the type of person that wore those kinds of things. My younger self could certainly relate.

Which brings me to another difference in our lives. Cait is single. And even during my single days, I was raising three kids. I find it much easier to say "no" to myself when debating the merits of any particular purchase than to say "no" to a child or to a husband. And I'm not a pushover. But why should my husband or kids have to suffer my decision to be frugal?

I managed to get myself into more debt than I was comfortable with when my kids were teens still living at home. That happened, in large part, because I still co-owned our home with my ex-husband, the house needed some major work, and I was responsible for all the upkeep. It wasn't as though I'd gone on some big spending spree. When I was left with just one child at home, I decided that I had to eliminate my credit card debt. With determination and rules similar to some of the rules that Cait decided to live by during her shopping ban, I was able to get myself out of debt in less than a year. I could only buy something new if I was replacing something worn out. I could only use my credit card on household items. I wish I could remember more of my rules. I lived on a cash basis, primarily (exception was household items and anything where you could only pay by credit card - over 10 years ago there were more things you could pay without touching a credit card - like gasoline). I'd nearly eliminated credit card use and withdrew only slightly more cash from the bank each week than I had in the past. But unlike the past, when my cash was gone, it was gone until the next time I was scheduled to hit the ATM. I was really good about that. It allowed a much larger amount of money to go towards debt service.

I even put my daughter's allowance schedule on the same cash withdrawal schedule that I was on, although she eventually had credit card issues of her own. I'd go to the bank on Wednesday evenings. That way if I blew all my cash over the weekend, I only had to struggle thru three work days with little or no cash.

One thing that was totally different between me and Cait was the fact that she lost her "shopping" friends. I had shopping friends when the kids were very little and I was only working very part-time. However, I never felt pressured to buy. I always enjoyed walking thru the mall. And none of my friends ever seemed to mind. If they were talking about great buys, I'd usually just tune out. I don't think they realized that. One line that Cait used when she became sober and then re-used when she was on her shopping ban was I don't care that you still shop, so why do you care that I don't?

I feel compelled to add that Cait is Canadian. No where in her list of permitted or not permitted expenses, nor as any part of her consideration when deciding whether to quit her job to freelance, was any mention of health care and/or health care expenses. I don't believe that to be a function of her age but rather the fact that not having health insurance is a huge concern in the United States where it's a total non-issue in Canada where healthcare is publicly funded.

At the end of the book, Cait gives a list of suggestions on how the reader can start his or her own shopping ban. She gives some pointers on how you might do this with other members of your household who are part of your family budget and makes it seem as though it's optional that you all participate of whether you'll be the example and go it alone. As I read that, all I could think of was all the resentment that would build up if I was strictly limiting myself in my spending and no one else was. That would not and could not work.

I was able to retire at a young age partly because I was willing to make do with less. I rarely go shopping and with the exception of needing to own a camera, my hobbies outside of travel cost me very little money. I'm not anywhere close to living with a shopping ban, but it's much, much harder to get me to part with my money than it was when I was working.

Would I recommend this book? If you're seriously interested in seeing how someone else survived a year of living with less, you might find this interesting. But other than the list of suggestions at the end of the book, this is Cait's book, Cait's story and not a real model for living less yourself.