Five things that stuck with me from The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project is a popular memoir / self-help book about the author’s year-long “experiment” at trying to be happier. She presents research on happiness throughout the book and she also seeks to make changes in her own life. Each chapter represents a month of the project and each month is focused on a particular goal, though as I recall, she tries to be cumulative with her goals, so that she’s not abandoning January’s resolutions when she hits February. An example of the book’s organization: February’s chapter title is called “Remember Love” and focuses on happiness in marriage; March’s title is “Aim Higher” and focuses on happiness at work.

I really enjoyed Rubin’s book as I felt that while some goals were particular to her life, others were quite applicable. I finished the book in late November last year, and spent some time on a Saturday writing down all the things that struck me, and what goals I was inspired to consider or act upon. Now that it’s been two months, I thought I’d share five things that stuck with me:

We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by doing just a little bit each day.

1. The quote above has really stuck with me and is the idea I’ve shared most often with other people when discussing this book. In my own life, it helped get me back on track for transcribing my ancestor’s journal, as I reminded myself that if I just do a little bit regularly, even if just a half hour here and there, eventually it will get done.

2. I don’t have children, and I don’t work with them in my job either, but I was fascinated by Rubin’s chapter on parenting. She wrote a phrase: “Acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings,” particularly children’s. I remembered this concept while helping out at my church’s preschool. The service was nearly over so we were encouraging the kids to help put the toys away, but one toddler was determinedly opening up the costume bin and taking out the fireman hat and other props. I tried to gently tell him that it was time to put things away but he wasn’t listening. So I said, “I know, it’s hard – you want to play with these costumes because they look like so much fun!” I followed it up by emphasizing that I see that his family comes nearly every week so I knew he’d have a chance to play with the costumes in another week. And it worked! He stopped trying to take the costumes out. And I did feel that my sympathizing with his desire to play with the toys was key to communicating with him at that moment.

3. Another concept that stuck with me from the book was the encouragement to “Spend out.” Don’t save things for a rainy day. I was already putting this into practice somewhat before I read the book. For instance, when I was in Prince Edward Island last summer, I bought three jars of specialty preserves. My tendency with specialty, shelf-stable foods is to keep them for some undetermined special occasion. But this time, I used them right away, in my ordinary PB&J sandwiches I brought to work. It did give me pleasure to eat my sandwich at my desk and be like: “Yum, raspberry champagne preserves!” Rubin’s emphasis on the “Spend out” just makes this idea more of a mantra in my head, as I come across gifted body lotion or a gift card in my apartment. Don’t save it forever, use it!

Counter with open preserve jars on four or five turntables, each jar with a spoon sticking out.

PEI Preserve Company sample counter

4. Rubin talks about a “one-minute” rule: don’t put off anything that takes less than a minute. I haven’t remembered this specific rule as much as the general idea of trying to take care of nagging tasks that really don’t take much time to get accomplished. And one similar idea: not putting off buying something that will really help solve a nagging problem. For instance, I wanted to try running at least once a week, but every time I ran I got shin splints. I tried altering my gait according to a running book and a running video I found online but was feeling discouraged. So I did something else encouraged by The Happiness Project: I asked for help. I posted on Facebook. Several people said, “Get proper running shoes. Don’t try to change your gait at this stage.” So I bought running shoes, and lo and behold no more shin splints! I haven’t transformed into a daily runner or anything, but most weekends since then, I’ve gone for a run, and that is a good start for me. Now of course none of this advice from the book is new, but Rubin has a way of presenting them that makes them something I internalize and want to implement.

5. Similar to not putting off nagging tasks, I’ve also tried to be proactive about nurturing friendships and introducing variety, novelty, and little projects to my life. In December, I reached out to a friend who had just moved back into the greater D.C. area and we met up to play board games at her house. My latest idea for a project has been to memorize songs from “The Great American Songbook” as I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve wished I had whole songs memorized instead of just snatches. So far, I’ve just memorized one: “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” an Irving Berlin song from Top Hat.

There are so many other ideas and quotes from The Happiness Project that I’ve stored away. I like the concept of taking pleasure in “an atmosphere of growth”. I like Rubin’s division of clutter into types: nostalgic clutter, aspirational clutter, bargain / freebie clutter, etc. I appreciate the reminder to not think about the return when committing acts of love and generosity.

And of course there are other goals that I’ve articulated but not yet made progress on. I’m still bad about getting the amount of sleep I should. I have some nagging tasks I still haven’t resolved. I still read the comment sections online. Rubin makes it clear that her resolution chart was key to keeping her resolution. I tried to do a soft version of this, by writing notes in my day-planner but that hasn’t stuck. So I may need to look into my own version of a resolution chart for my more challenging changes.

One final note: I think Rubin makes a strong defense of the pursuit of happiness. It isn’t self-centered to pursue happiness because true happiness arises from love, generosity and positive relationships with others. Happiness isn’t easy, or a product of blissful ignorance:

Of course it’s cooler not to be too happy. There’s a goofiness to happiness, an innocence, a readiness to be pleased. Zest and enthusiasm take energy, humility, and engagement; taking refuge in irony, exercising destructive criticism, or assuming an air of philosophical ennui is less taxing.

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Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal: January – February 1890

I’ve taken up my transcription project again and have some excerpts to share.

Context for the first entry: Emma’s husband Frank worked for Oscar Frommel & Bro., a produce dealer based out of New York. He traveled by train all over New England, and appeared to have oversight responsibilities over the transport of apples, pears, etc. In the entries preceding this one, Emma expressed some concern that Frank had not yet arrived home from New Haven.

Monday, January 20, 1890                                Rainy and foggy. Frank came in the night. He hired a man to bring him from Palmer. He left New Haven on the night express train expecting to get off in Springfield, but he went to sleep and got carried over nearly to Worcester before the conductor woke him up, then he had to pay his fare and get off. He had .10 left and over a hundred dollar in checks and his r.r. pass book but those did not do much for him in a strange place, so as soon as daylight he started out to see how far he could walk in a day. He arrived in Palmer in the evening, then drove the rest of the way. Mr. Haywood and Frank slept until nearly noon, then they had dinner and Mr. H. started on his way back again.

I basted an apron for Susie and cut out a dress for Mother W. Grandpa walked home from the village this P.M.

Emma and Mattie went to school. Mrs. Cooper is having fiery trials with Mrs. Wheeler. Everyone has about all they can stand up under, of some kind or another. “Grit and Grace” need to be in bountiful supply.

The distance between Worcester and Palmer is over 30 miles according to my quick Google search. Long walk.

Image of Oscar Frommel & Bro letterhead taken from a digital collection at Columbia University Libraries:

Oscar Frommel letter head

The next excerpt doesn’t need much context to understand what is happening:

From Thur. February 20, 1890 until March 1, 1890

Cloudy – snowstorm this P.M. and eve with the wind blowing fearfully. I did not go about the house to do anything all day. Mrs. Cooper went to New Haven on the 10 o’c train. Her daughter is quite sick. Mr. C. borrowed 2.25 & telegram was .50 – I have been quite busy doing the last things.

Ruby Elma was born at half past ten at night. Frank went for the Dr. and carried him home again. The wind blew fearfully and the snow flew but he had to go in a wagon. Dr. Perry is not very agreeable at such a time but I came out of it all right – and felt stronger than usual. Ruby weighed 4 ½ lbs.

Very cold, nearly down to 0.

Fri. morn Frank took a sleigh and went after Mrs. Hiram Graves. She was quite surprised to receive a call so soon.

Sun Prescott, Mattie and Emma rode down to church in a sleigh. P. looked quite manly with a sister on each side.

Mrs. Graves stayed with us ten days. Charged $7.50 for her services.

Ruby was called by Aunt Ruby’s name because she arrived on her birthday. She would have been 88 yrs. old.

Elma is after my mother.

Ruby appears to have been born prematurely – based on the weight and Mrs. Graves’ surprise at being called so soon. I am going to assume that Mrs. Graves was a midwife. Does anyone know what services she would have provided since she was not present at the delivery itself? The late 19th century was apparently a transition time, as doctors began to more widely practice obstetrics and midwives’ role in the general population began to decrease. Emma doesn’t appear to be a fan of Dr. Perry’s bedside manner though.

 

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Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange is the new Black

Orange is the New Black: One Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

2010. Spiegel & Grau. ebook. 322 pages.

Review:

In case you haven’t heard of this book before, Orange is the New Black is Piper Kerman’s memoir about her experience in a women’s mininum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut. It inspired the Netflix TV show by the same name, of which I have watched both seasons. In 1993, Kerman helped transport drug money for her girlfriend at the time. In 1998, she pled guilty to the crime, but didn’t serve her sentence until 2004.

I found Orange is the New Black a worthwhile read. While it was fun to spot the inspirations for characters, plotlines and scenes used in the TV show, the memoir is really a completely different story than the show. Kerman never sensationalizes prison life. For the most part, the inmates really look out for each other, and Kerman is both the recipient and giver of touching gestures and gifts. In an interview included at the back of the book, Kerman states that her book “is really about finding that value in humanity and warmth in a setting where we’re constantly told there’s none to be found.”

It seems that one of the worst aspects of prison is how the inmates are at the mercy of the correctional officers’ moods, prejudices and caprice. While certainly there need to be rules and order in prison, some COs seem to indulge in power trips and withholding information unnecessarily from the inmates. I have a friend who works as an addiction counselor in the prison system. In her first prison job, most of her difficulties arose from conflicts with correctional officers, not with the inmates. (I haven’t asked her lately if that dynamic is the same.) As Kerman describes in an NPR interview:

KERMAN: [A] small kindness from a prison officer, or a staffer, can sometimes really mean the world. There were also a very, very small number of folks – men, in my experience – who really made it their business to make life miserable for prisoners. And one prison guard can make hundreds and hundreds of prisoners’ lives unbearable.

GROSS: There’s a lot of times when you’re frisked, when you’re in prison. And for one of the guards, that’s an opportunity to feel women up – one of the male guards. Is that something you experienced in prison, or is that something that was written for the Netflix series?

KERMAN: I – like, I think most of the women that I knew in Danbury frequently experienced, you know, that really simple and straightforward groping, which is a total violation. It’s really low-level sexual abuse, but it is really persistent and pervasive. And so that would happen all the time and generally, that would happen in the course of going in or out of the visiting room. So it’s particularly jarring to sort of have that kind of a violation happen just as you’re about to go and try and have a really positive experience with your loved ones.

I’m really glad Kerman has been able to shine this spotlight on the life of prisoners in the United States. I can think of several instances when I’ve seen or heard people regard prisoners as less than human. This past Christmas, a friend of my sister’s posted on Facebook about her church congregation’s decision to send 32,000 gifts to inmates in their state prison system. The first comment on her post: “Why inmates and not children or families in need?!” (My sister’s friend and another person responded very graciously that inmates are people in need as well, and that the church also has funds dedicated to children and needy families.)

Kerman’s critique of the prison system should not lead to the conclusion that Kerman denies her own culpability in her situation. Kerman states from the start that her jail-time was deserved: she broke the law and received the consequences of that action. She is also aware of her own privilege – that she had a supportive fiance, plus supportive family and friends throughout her jail-time, and that her sentence was relatively short.

Also, as friendly as fellow inmates could be, prison should in no way be construed as some sort of summer camp. Kerman makes it clear that prison is emotionally punishing and the lack of freedom is not an abstract concept but something deeply felt on a daily basis. The boredom, the lack of privacy, the separation from family and friends, from the world and its beauty, are all part of the experience. Do the prisoners come out of their sentences prepared to re-enter the world? Kerman’s opinion is that they largely do not. She also specifically criticizes mandatory drug sentences, which have led to more, and more lengthy incarcerations than seems beneficial to society.

There are a couple other prison or prison-related memoirs out there that I may read, now that I’ve read the most currently famous one. I’d particularly like to read Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, about how Conover, a journalist, applies to become a prison officer.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Leafing through Life – “Kerman has a vivid, honest voice that doesn’t drift into self-pity but instead keenly observes the people around her both good and bad.”

The Novel Life – “While I’ve never been a fan of a memoir, Orange is the New Black reads like a fiction novel. Piper is conversational, a bit sarcastic at times, and a character that, while you may not feel relatable, you will at least find yourself immersed in her story.”

Reading through Life – “It was interesting to me, in particular, to read about the way that she adapted to the rules and routines of being in the system, and how she managed to deal with knowing that she, unlike quite a few of the others around her, was there for the first time and probably the last. I think this is what makes her story both unique and less valuable as an “insider’s look at prison”: Kerman isn’t the “typical” American prisoner.”

 

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (re-read)

glass castle  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

2005. Scribner. Paperback. 288 pages.

Review:

I first read The Glass Castle five years ago and absolutely loved it. I had no trepidation when I picked it up again. I knew it would hold up to a re-read and it did. I like that Walls’ tone throughout the book manages to be matter-of-fact without distancing the reader. My emotions were always engaged, but not manipulated, by her writing.

Also, the narrative she constructs for her childhood is very compelling. The book memorably begins with Jeannette Walls as an adult, taking a taxi to a party in New York City, and then she looks out the window to see her mom digging through a dumpster. The book soon transitions to an early memory of how Jeannette was badly burned while trying to boil a hotdog at three years old. She captures a child’s journey from accepting her parents as normal to the slow realization that something is wrong. In one of these turning points, Jeannette and her sister Lori have just finished off eating margarine with sugar, for lack of other food options.

Mom got angry. She was saving it, she said, to butter the bread. We already ate all the bread, I said. Mom said she was thinking of baking some bread if a neighbor would loan us some flour. I pointed out that the gas company had turned off our gas.

“Well,” Mom said. “We should have saved the margarine just in case the gas gets turned back on. Miracles happen, you know.” It was because of my and Lori’s selfishness, she said, that if we had any bread, we’d have to eat it without butter.

Mom wasn’t making any sense to me. I wondered if she had been looking forward to eating the margarine herself. And that made me wonder if she was the one who’d stolen the can of corn the night before, which got me a little mad. “It was the only thing to eat in the whole house,” I said. Raising my voice, I added, “I was hungry.”

Mom gave me a startled look. I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

p. 69

Another reason I love this book is the bond between Jeannette and her siblings, who look out for each other, in the face of their parents failure to do the same.

I recently read two thought-provoking reviews/comment sections around this book that I want to discuss a bit. Both reviewers admire the book, but as I interpreted from their writing, they experienced some unease regarding the book’s reception by readers – that is, how readers categorized the story, and what they took away from it.

The first is Jenny’s recent review from Shelf Love. In the comment section, blogger Litlove compared Walls’ story to a fairy tale:

The fairy tale critic, Jack Zipes maintains that fairy tales are as much for the parents as the children, a way of making them feel better about the stuff they may have done to their kids. And that’s the part of the book I struggle with – the thought of all the people who might read this and think: see, what I did wasn’t so bad after all.

The concern here, I think, is that the Hansel and Gretel aspect of the story, and Walls’ dispassionate tone may cause readers to gloss over the parental wrongs, and reinforce this idea that children can magically surmount anything if they just have enough guts and determination.

Here is a link to Litlove’s 2009 review from her blog, Tales from the Reading Room. She and those who discussed the book in that review’s comment section expressed unease about people who see the book as uplifting, who praise the author’s forgiveness and indeed, see it as a story about forgiveness.

This criticism of readers made me feel a little defensive, at first, as what stays with me about this book is how the siblings helped each other out of their situation. So yes, a big part of the reason I like the book is this one positive aspect to her story, in the midst of the harrowing details. I may not use the word uplifting, but I found myself rooting for these kids and feeling glad when three out of the four of them managed to free themselves from the situation.

In a funny way, the expressed unease of some commenters on Litlove’s blog made me feel uneasy, because it sometimes came across as: “Dear other readers: you’re reading it wrong.” But at the same time, I must admit that I have expressed similar unease when it comes to the popularity of books like Twilight. And I think the key here is the popularity of the work, because it is then that we start wondering why is this popular and we start connecting it to patterns of popular stories. One of the commenters on Litlove’s review remarked how Americans love the “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” narrative. If this narrative is overly favored, such favor may submerge narratives which describe the damaging generational cycle of poverty and abuse. Thus, The Glass Castle‘s popularity makes some readers uneasy, because it can be seen as inadvertently contributing to this imbalance.

Of course, such favor isn’t the fault of the book itself, especially in this case where it is a memoir describing actual life events. And I feel that I can love what I love about The Glass Castle without caveat, while acknowledging that it shouldn’t be the only type of narrative I read about poverty. And it hasn’t been: I’ve also read books like Adrian LeBlanc’s Random Family, a nonfiction book that captures the cycle of poverty among families in the Bronx. That said, I definitely welcome more suggestions for books about poverty, especially nonfiction and memoir.

Thanks to Jenny, Litlove and sundry commenters for stirring me to deeper thought on this topic, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized your opinions!

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves – “I spent most of the reading of this book alternating between horrified and fascinated, and feeling a little bit like a voyeur watching something that I should probably stop.”

The Book Lady’s Blog – “This was a gripping, touching, ultimately very redemptive story that reminded me of all I have to be thankful for and inspired me to be more aware of those who have less.”

Tales from the Reading Room – “The book reads to me like a return to a time that has been frozen in the past, unexamined, unexplained, unexplored, preserved with the love and loyalty of the young child, who has no choice in the matter.”

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Blessed be the bridge-builders (and their books)

After my review of Karen Armstrong’s memoir was posted yesterday, I was searching the internet to verify an aspect of her story, and came across a blog post about Karen Armstrong, written by Jerry Coyne last November. Jerry Coyne is a scientist, professor and author. He wrote the book, Why Evolution is True, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed. I wasn’t really aware of his writing outside of that book. And then I read this blog post, where he calls Armstrong “dangerous” [for her defense of Islam], spoke dismissively of her “palaver”, and mockingly said she “earns her living by making liberal believers feel Sophisticated.”

I don’t know why I was so taken aback by this, as it’s not like I’m unaware of this certain breed of athiests-on-the-internet. I guess it was the dissonance between my favorable impressions of Armstrong from her books on compassion and interfaith understanding, and finding this vehement, contemptuous insistence that she is actually dangerous. (Coyne has written similarly about Armstrong a couple of other times on his blog.)

Unfortunately, I think that bridge-builders like Armstrong often face contempt as they try to create understanding and dialogue in places where partisanship is the norm. So I want to express my appreciation for writers who, in my opinion, are trying to foster havens of respectful dialogue among disparate groups, and within controversial topics. Due to my own personal interests and train of thought right now, the bridge-building authors I have in mind all have written about Christianity.

First, especially in light of his recent death, I want to highlight writer and theologian, Marcus Borg. Several years ago, I read The Heart of Christianity, and I recently finished his book Reading The Bible Again For The First Time. I resonate with his approach to Christianity; his writing gave me encouragement as I resettled into my Christian faith after relinquishing Biblical literalism. In Christianity Today’s obituary, Scot McKnight is quoted as saying: “He patiently listened to all sides of the debates and knew the strengths of evangelicalism and historic orthodoxy, even if he pointed more often to weaknesses. Borg was the kind of progressive/liberal theologian who welcomed evangelicals to the table—as long as they would listen, as well.”

Agnostic Brown University student and budding journalist Kevin Roose sought a deeper understanding of evangelical Christians, and decided to go “undercover” as a student at Liberty University. The result was his thoughtful book, The Unlikely Disciple. As I wrote in my review of it, “[The Unlikely Disciple] is a lovely picture of someone trying to find common ground and understanding with the ‘other side.’ It’s also an intriguing look at a culture whose members are frequently dismissed out of hand.”

In their book, A Climate for Change, Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley sought to persuade Christians that humans have and are contributing to global warming and that Christians should be part of the effort for environmental change. Katharine Hayhoe is a Christian climate scientist. I reviewed Hayhoe and Farley’s book back in 2010, but recently heard about Katharine Hayhoe again in a re-aired NPR episode that had originally been taped in June of last year. A quote from the episode: “In her presentations, Hayhoe says she finds it effective to address the questions people have: How do we know that climate change is even real? How could I care about climate change as a Christian/Conservative/Republican? For some people, she says, it can feel like giving up their identity in order to care about climate change.”

Rachel Held Evansblog was a breath of fresh air as I became increasingly agitated with the church where I was a member, agitated with the whole Christian sub-culture it represented. I loved the people in that church and they loved me, but I was alienated by their rhetoric on certain topics. Evans, who still identifies as an evangelical Christian, articulated some of the doubts and concerns that I had. I definitely identified with aspects of Evans’s memoir, Evolving in Monkey Town. I don’t follow her blog as regularly nowadays, but I still appreciate how she seeks to build bridges within the Christian community. Her blog has a regular interview feature that has included – among many others – “Ask a Reformed Pastor,” “Ask an Interfaith Couple,” “Ask a transgender Christian,” and “Ask a Seventh-Day Adventist.”

Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, and James Brownson have each published books which work toward reforming conservative Christianity’s stance on homosexuality. I’ve read Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian and Justin Lee’s memoir, Torn. I hope to read Brownson’s more densely academic book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality in its entirety this year (I’ve read portions) and also would like to read David Gushee‘s Changing Our Mind after hearing him deliver a speech at last year’s Reformation Project conference in D.C. The speech was called, “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities.” I haven’t reviewed Vines’ or Lee’s book yet, as I’m hoping to finish Brownson’s book and write a comprehensive review of all three, plus Jeff Chu‘s fantastic book Does Jesus Really Love Me? With all of these authors, I see their goal of reform as also a goal of building bridges, as many in Vines and Lee’s situation have understandably left the faith and never looked back, but these two and others have decided to remain and keep the channels of dialogue open.

Are bridge-building authors important to you as a reader? If so, who are the bridge-building writers you admire? What topics are they interested in?

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

Discovery_of_Witches_Cover2010. Penguin. ebook. 581 pages.

In a nutshell:

Scholar Diana Bishop is a witch who largely refuses to use her powers – except for special occasions, such as when her washing machine is broken or a book is out of reach. While conducting research in Oxford’s Bodliean Library, Diana comes across a spell-bound book and has a brief magical interaction with it before returning it to the stacks. This action brings her to the attention of all the supernatural creatures in the vicinity: the other witches, daemons, and vampires. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, seeks her out and the two fall in love. This taboo relationship and Diana’s burgeoning powers throw both of them into danger, as they journey to Clairmont’s ancestral home in France and then to Diana’s home in upstate New York.

Review:

If I were to compare A Discovery of Witches to another book, it would be Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The two books share a combination of vampires, history and travel, not to mention lengthiness. I remember loving Kostova’s novel, especially her ability to evoke the way places were in certain times. A Discovery of Witches does not have as good a sense of place, except for Harkness’ depiction of the old haunted house in upstate New York. I loved that house with all its quirks and ghosts. Harkness gave the upstate New York locale a New England feel, and I certainly warmed to that. Indeed, the last third may have been my favorite part of the book, as more and more characters show up at the house, including one of my favorite side characters, Miriam. True, the last third also could get boggy as supernatural politics and rules are stuffed in alongside eleventh-hour hurried explanations – [**Spoiler**] oh Diana you have all the powers because you absorbed your twin in utero! okay go time travel now! [**/end spoiler**].

Why am I starting this review by describing the last third? Well, I wanted to start with the positive, I guess. I debated giving up on this book while in the first two-thirds because I hated the Matthew / Diana dynamic so much. Young “special” woman courted by very old vampire? Oh, and he’s stalkerish (“over-protective”), handsome and rich too? Yippee. The first part – in Oxford – was almost insufferable, as Matthew shows off his antiques and fine wines to Diana, whisking her around in his high-end car and to his high-end estate. And he’s also – wait for it – dangerous, so there’s that tired rigmarole as well.

The section in France is a little improved, as we are introduced to Matthew’s mom, Ysabeau, also a cool side character. But it’s also: more antiques! More displays of Matthew’s fine tastes! And it was in this section that I realized that the book features lots of scenes of Diana being told to rest. Usually this is for a good reason, as she experiences a lot of emotional and physical trauma during the book. But she is constantly submitting to the caretaking and ministrations of others, and this gets repetitive. As lengthy as this book is, as a reader, you start to eye those repetitive aspects and ask if all that was really necessary.

I’m semi-curious about the rest of the trilogy, as I did like aspects of the book. Despite the clumsy way it was sometimes handled or written, the supernatural politics and world-building had some intrigue. And the side characters had promise – more airtime for them could possibly benefit the story as a whole, I think. Has anyone read the whole trilogy? Does it get better?

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Iris on Books – “Throughout the first half, reading A Discovery of Witches felt like an addictive rush, I kept on wanting to read more, and I could not wait to recommend it to the people I know who enjoy paranormal fiction. However, towards the end of the book, that rush turned into a mixture of the will to keep reading and dread combined with, at times, annoyance.”

The Literary Omnivore – “The plot structure is crippled by the lack of any resolution in this installment of the trilogy, the overbearing romance is so syrupy you’ll want to wash your hands, and the worldbuilding’s motto appears to be “Why show when you can tell”? Definitely a miss.”

Tif Talks Books – “I loved the complexities added in, including alchemic history, suspenseful mysteries, intricate connections, scientific relations to the paranormal, and more than a little romance.”

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The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong

Spiral Staircase

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness

2003. Knopf. Hardcover. 336 pages.

Review:

Two years ago, I read Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life as part of an interfaith book discussion. Although I’m aware of Armstrong’s impressive bibliography of books on the major world religions, I have not yet read any of them. Twelve Steps was recently published and is kind of the book incarnation of Armstrong’s work toward a global compassion movement. The Spiral Staircase is Armstrong’s memoir that starts from her departure from the convent to the time of the memoir’s writing (it was published in 2003). There also exists a memoir about her time in the convent called Through the Narrow Gate, and I was surprised to learn from The Spiral Staircase, that Armstrong had published a memoir about her post-convent life before, in 1983, under the title Beginning the World. She seems to disavow the 1983 version of her story now.

The title of the book is a reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Ash Wednesday”. The first part of the poem prefaces The Spiral Staircase: “Because I do not hope to turn again / Because I do not hope / Because I do not hope to turn . . .” The poem and the title evoke a gradual climb that doesn’t always feel like progress.

For those who, like me, didn’t read her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, Armstrong provides enough background to understand how life in the convent damaged her. The Spiral Staircase begins with Armstrong as a student in Oxford, unable to emotionally connect to art and slowly giving up on God, whose presence had always eluded her. She has a formidable intellect, but still struggles to find her place in academia. Disappointment after disappointment seem to dog her life, though friends and her landlord’s family provide bright spots that pierce through her internal darkness. Armstrong’s voice in The Spiral Staircase is very frank but also generous toward her past self and toward others.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects to Armstrong’s story is her long-undiagnosed epilepsy. During her life in the convent, Armstrong experienced several attacks that looked like fainting to others’ eyes. Her superiors accused her of being dramatic. Outside of the convent, her episodes – which often included hallucinations, disorientation, terror and sometimes amnesia – became even more frightening. Psychiatrists thought it was mental illness and addressed it accordingly, and of course this failed to actually help her. When she was finally diagnosed, the doctor expressed exasperation at how all these psychiatrists failed to recognize her textbook case of epilepsy. Even today, Armstrong writes, there are some people in her life who refuse to accept that her epilepsy is a medical problem, not a mental illness.

The memoir grows brighter and brighter as Karen describes discovering her passion for comparative religion. She travels to Jerusalem as part of a TV production, and also learns more about Islam and Judaism while looking again at Christianity. It’s a pleasure to read of someone finding their calling, and even better, reading Armstrong’s insightful analysis and enthusiasm for her topic. I copied out two quotes, one of which I included in my end-of-year blog post, but which I’ll quote again (I also enjoy the allusion to Lewis Carroll):

Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you.

And the second quote:

Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary.

The Spiral Staircase was a difficult read at first, because her life was difficult then, but I think that is necessary in order to feel the joy as Karen finds her place in the world. I’m glad to have read this memoir before diving into her backlist, as I think it will add to the reading experience to know how she came to be interested in writing about the world religions.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The Book Brothel – “Armstrong does a great job of expressing a lot of strong emotions in a way that feels honest and not overboard. Her unorthodox life makes for a very interesting autobiography, bringing together faith, religion, illness, and the academic world in a look at the 1960s and 1970s, a period of time that was turning away from Armstrong’s original beliefs.”

Shelf Love (Teresa) – “It’s a beautiful story that shows the value of always seeking, even when the answers seem hidden in the darkness.”

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