Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Happiness Project

by Gretchen Rubin
New York, Harper Collins, 2009

Week 22    Memoir

When I was twelve we moved to a new town across the state from the town where all four of us had been born. One day, several months after we moved, I saw my normally happy and self-assured mother sprawled across the bed sobbing. I stood and watched her for awhile, and then backed away and crept down the stairs. I pondered over that scene for quite a while until I asked her about it. She said that she was so unhappy after the move, missing her friends and her connections in our old town. At that moment I got an insight into my mother I had just taken for granted. My mother’s happiness depended not only upon our Dad and us, but on her friends. They were the ones that gave her strength and made her happy.

Many of us have sung the words, “Is that all there is?” Gretchen Rubin actually did something about it. She set out not to change her life circumstances so much as to assure the happiness of the circumstances she was in. Luckily, she didn’t have to change her basic circumstances, just her discontent. She had a good marriage, delightful children, a lovely home, and a good career. And more importantly, she recognized those blessings at the outset of her project. However, she did feel that she could find ways to alleviate the vague sense of unease and aggravation that she constantly felt as well as a feeling that life was passing her by.

Like all good left-brained people, she read up on the subject, set some goals and resolutions, made some affirmations, and began a year long project to make sure her life remained happy. She read a lot of books about happiness, picked a model, St. Therese, analyzed her happiness and discontents, created twelve commandments for behavior, and some secrets of adulthood. Then, she divided her resolutions up over the twelve months, and spent the year writing and blogging about the project. The result is the book, The Happiness Project, and an ongoing blog

The beauty of this book is that Gretchen Rubin doesn’t tell you what to do to become happier; she just tells you what she did and quotes readers of her blog as they recount what they did. Along the way she discovered four splendid truths of happiness that she will continue to try to live by:
1) If I want to be happier, I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.
2) One of the best ways to make myself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy myself.
3) The days are long, but the years are short.
4) If I think I’m happier, I am happier.

This book fits into a genre that is filling up: books people write about taking on projects. The Year of Living Biblically, which I read earlier in the year, fits this category as well. The interview I cite at the end of this entry talks about three books written this year about women and happiness. Apparently, this is another genre of book that is big on the scene.

I have to say that although the book got a bit tedious toward the end, I really appreciated her journey and spent a great deal of time talking about and thinking about her commandments, her truths, and her happiness project as they applied to me. As she says at the outset, each person’s happiness project will be different. I am certainly at a different place in my life than Gretchen Rubin was when she began her project, but I found much to gain by thinking about what makes me happy and what I can do to make myself happier during this time of my life. This blog, of course, is one attempt, and I have to say that reading these books, thinking about these books, and writing about these books has made me very happy. Another discovery I made as I was listing things that make me happy is that I really like to cook a nice meal. In talking with a friend the other day, she said that after her kids left home, she can’t stand to cook any more. I guess I am just the opposite. I love to think about, plan, and cook the next meal. To each his own happiness.

Gretchen Rubin’s blog is as interesting as her book. Yesterday she interviewed the sociologist Richard Florida. In that interview, he mentioned three happiness killers which I found valuable:
“There are three happiness killers - doing work you do not love and are not passionate about, surrounding yourself with people who you do not really like (someone who just fills time), and living somewhere that does not let you be you. Just stop it. Life is far too short. Also, materialism. We know that experiences matter so much more to happiness than material goods, stop the madness. That's why your place, community or neighborhood is so important - it is not just where you live. It is the center-piece or should I say center-place of your experiences.”

As I close this entry, I can’t help but wonder what Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book, Bright Sided, I read earlier this year, would think about Gretchen Rubin. I think that she would say that Gretchen is na├»ve—but in a good way! Ehrenreich might also side with a blogger, Rebecca Traister, with her blog entry, "Screw Happiness." In it she says:
“Here is what I have deduced so far both from my experiences and from the hissed warnings of those who propel me toward their idea of happiness and simultaneously warn me it will never really be attainable: There will be peaks -- falling in love, seeing new places, enjoying whatever form a family takes, drinking a beer on a warm night, seeing a baseball team win a long coveted pennant. And there will be valleys -- divorces and illnesses, joblessness and money trouble, watching those you love in pain, a ninth inning playoff loss. In those valleys, I'm not sure that it's happiness we first strive for, but rather the power to not get stuck, to move toward just slightly higher ground. A spot within view of a peak will often do just as nicely as a seat atop it.”

Well folks, until next time, be happy. :)

I really like the review that appeared in The Christian Science Monitor:
Here is an interview in The Daily Beast of three authors of books about happiness, Gretchen Rubin’s included. It is enlightening and adds greatly to the conversation.
This is Gretchen Rubin’s blog:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire

By Stieg Larsson
New York, Vintage Books, 2005, 2006.

Week 21 Fiction

As a disclaimer, I need to say that I first read these books last summer and absolutely fell in love with them. When I mentioned them to my book club, everyone wanted to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. So, it was the topic of this month's gathering, and I re-read the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, for this week's blog as well. They are as fascinating to read a second time as they were the first with less confusion over the Swedish names and the myriad of characters that must not deter you as you begin the adventure.

Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist who delivered three novels to his publisher in 2004 just before he abruptly died of a heart attack. The final novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, is being published next week, and I will be getting it from Amazon as soon as it is released.

These are very complex mysteries with several themes, and the two main characters are just as complex. Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist and publisher of a liberal magazine, Millennium. (In many ways, his character is Stieg Larsson's alter ego--their careers run parallel.) Lisbeth Salander is the other main character in all three books, and complex is too simple a word to describe her. She is a computer hacker, has a photographic memory, and has too many personality problems to describe in a one page review. However these two characters are what move these mysteries beyond the ordinary. The author of the New York Times review of The Girl Who Played with Fire describes it best. “Salander and Blomkvist transcend their genre and insinuate themselves in the reader’s mind through their oddball individuality, their professional competence, and surprisingly, their emotional vulnerability.”

The themes that run through the novels are financial improprieties, child abuse, neo-Nazism, the sex trade, and computer hacking, murder, and sadism—fun things like that. However, the books are so engrossing that one becomes accepting of the ugliness. Frankly, it is interesting to look at Sweden from this standpoint, because these are generally not the topics that we think we know about Sweden. A New York Times Magazine article says, “In fact, not the least of the attractions of the books for American readers is that they introduce us to a Sweden that is vastly different from the bleak, repressed, guilt-ridden images we see in Ingmar Bergman movies and from the design-loving Socialist paradise we imagine whenever we visit Ikea. It’s a country that turns out to be a lot like our own.”

Larsson named the first book, Men Who Hate Women, which when you know that, casts the entire book in a different light than when it was re-named The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the United States. The new title makes the reader more conscious of Lisbeth Salander as the main character and less conscious of the topic of the harm committed against women, which then becomes just one of the underlying themes.

Most people that I have spoken to who have read The Dragon Tattoo complained about the first hundred pages being difficult to get through, but after they got beyond the set-up, they became so engrossed that they read it in one or two sittings. I found the Girl Who Played with Fire to be an easier read, perhaps because I knew all the main characters. In this volume, Lisbeth plays a much more significant role, and there is more action and a dramatic, though gruesome, finale.

Some friends have seen the Swedish movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which is playing the art houses this spring. It comes out on DVD in July. Hollywood is going to make its own version of the book in 2012.

Now, I just have to wait a few days to get my hands on The Girl Who Kicked Up a Hornet’s Nest.

Here is the New York Times review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

And the review of The Girl Who Played with Fire:

Also Stieg Larsson’s Website:

I just found a fascinating article that is appearing in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. It is called "The Afterlife of Stieg Larsson."

Friday, May 14, 2010

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

By Michael Pollan
New York, Penguin Books, 2008

Week 20 Non-Fiction

I am a cook, a reader of recipes, an off-and-on dieter, a lover of food, and I learned a tremendous amount by reading this book. Anyone who is any of these things will learn a lot as well.

Pollan divides the book into three sections: The Age of Nutritionism; The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization; and Getting over Nutritionism. The first two sections discuss how our food and our diet got into its current state, and the last section considers what we should do about it.

I was especially intrigued with the history lessons. It appears that at some point, we eaters became victims of food science, which has tried to separate out the nutritional values of perfectly good food and decide why that particular item of our diet is of nutritional use to humans. When food became chemistry, the food industry attempted to isolate the valuable chemicals and import them into items that were not of value, i.e. Vitamin C in Kool-Aid. The main example he uses is margarine, a product of the corn industry. When margarine was discovered to be bad for our hearts and cholesterol, all the industry had to do was to change its chemical composition, and voila it was restored. Pollan outlines all the bad science that has gone into ruining our diets, and how the food industry has capitalized on it. It has become a revolving door of low fat, low cholesterol, low carbohydrate, and on and on. The more processed food becomes, the less it resembles real food. He says that if the product has to make a claim of its nutritional value on the packaging, don’t eat it.

The section on the history and corruption of the western diet was fascinating. He tells of a researcher who convinced some aboriginal men living in an Australian city to return to their native lands and eat like their ancestors did for a time. These men had been suffering from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol eating a western diet, but when they began eating like their grandparents, all those diseases disappeared from their bodies within three months. The western diet is particularly bad; he suggests we look at what the people of Asia and the Mediterranean region (France and Italy, particularly) eat and modify our diets accordingly. It’s for sure they aren’t eating Twinkies.
His advice in the last section is strong, but it is what many of us already know rather intuitively. He suggests we eat whole food, cooked at home, grown locally, and that we eat that food in meals at the table, with family and friends. He suggests a diet rich in vegetables (mostly green) with small portions. Of course he is an advocate of farm markets, freezers, gardening and cooking.
The book is full of pithy commentary, such as “the silence of the yams,” and “don’t get your fuel from the same place that your car does” i.e. the gas station. He suggests that you not eat anything that is incapable of rotting or anything that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.

I suggest that this is a valuable read for everyone who is concerned about what is going in their mouths, or in the mouths of their children; anyone who is trying to change their approach to eating; anyone who loves food and cooking and eating. And…I’ll see you at the farmer’s market.

Michael Pollan is a journalist who specializes in foods and nutrition. His first book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals was a best seller. In Defense of Food came from an article he wrote for the New York Times magazine. It has a companion book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, a pocket sized book, which expands on the third section of In Defense of Food and lays out a plan for implementing a diet of “eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.”

Here is a review of the book in the New York Times
A whole hour of Michael Pollan on Bill Moyer’s Journal.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Information Officer

By Mark Mills
New York, Random House, 2009
Week 17 Fiction
The Information Officer by Mark Mills takes place on the island of Malta in 1942. Malta, which I had to look up, by the way, sits as a “little lump of rock in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea” between Italy and Alexandria, Egypt, and played a critical role in the attempt to gain control of Egypt. Once owned by Britain, Malta was a staging area for the planes and submarines of the Allies and a dumping ground for bombs from both German and Italian fighter planes.
The book is billed as a murder mystery, which it is, but it is also an espionage thriller and a period piece as well. The setting is unusual, which makes it doubly interesting. I can’t think of any other book I have ever read based in Malta. The cast of characters is a tight-knit community of military officers and wives (mostly British) as well as other Brits and a couple of Americans. We are introduced to a few Maltese as well, including the editor of a Maltese newspaper, Lilian, and a detective, Busuttil. The main character, Max, is the information officer for the island. His job is to put a bit of a positive spin on the horrendous battles that happen in the skies over the island several times daily. For instance, in one early scene, one of the island’s older citizens takes down a German spitfire with his shotgun, causing great celebration among the beleaguered citizens.
A psychopathic killer is brutalizing young Maltese dance hall hostesses. The powers that be want it kept secret because they think that the deaths are part of an espionage plot. Max, on the other hand, feels compelled to try to solve the mystery. The denouement comes just as the battle for Malta reaches a fever pitch, so the reader is thrust into battles on several fronts.
The weak link in this book is the character development. It is hard to feel too much compassion for any of the characters. As a matter of fact, I had a bit of a struggle distinguishing between most of the men and had to keep reminding myself who they were; some are quite extraneous. The women are a little more finely drawn. Having said that, the development of the killer’s persona is rather interestingly done; his madness is shown in chapters devoted entirely to his history and thoughts.
The main strength, as well as a reason to read the book, is the understanding of the resilience of the Maltese people in the midst of unbelievable odds. At one point, in 1942, they were the most “bombed patch of earth on the planet.” Mills does a fine job developing the details about the struggle to get food and other necessities as well as the portrayal of the vast amount of time the citizenry spent in the cellars and caves of the island during the daily bombings. This was something I knew nothing about, and I relished this new information.
This brings me to one of the reasons I like to read murder mysteries—for the setting. I find that good mystery writers spend a great deal of time researching the setting for their books, and readers are able to find out a lot more than "whodunnit.” Two of my favorite mysteries, Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo take place in settings I am not used to reading about -- Greenland and Sweden. I also have to add that I read The Information Officer on vacation in Florida. It made a good beach read.
Mark Mills is a British author whose second book, The Savage Garden, received very favorable reviews. Most reviewers said that they much preferred The Savage Garden to The Information Officer.
This review comes from a book review website that is new to me, and I thought this was one of the better reviews of The Information Officer.
Here is an interview of author Mark Mills. It also contains newsreel footage from the battle for Malta.
Here is a website that tells the story of the Battle for Malta.