Friday, June 26, 2015

WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH


Review of WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH: HOW TO BREAK FREE OF OVER-THINKING AND RECLAIM YOUR LIFE by SUSAN NOLEN-HOEKSEMA

I saw this book in the library - titled WOMEN WHO THINK TOO MUCH - and felt so flattered that someone had written a book about me that I borrowed it without...well, without thinking too much. Once I started reading I quickly discerned two key facts about myself: 1. I am actually not so much an overthinker as I am a worrier, at least by the author’s definitions. And 2. I intuitively picked up on accepted strategies for when I do trend dangerously near overthinking. Enough about me, though. The key facts about this book are: 1. It’s a vital read if you overthink. And 2. It’s an informing read if you know someone who overthinks. (Hint: we all do.)

First let’s differentiate between the author’s descriptions of overthinking vs. worrying. Overthinkers fixate on events in the past while worriers obsess over what could possibly go wrong in the future. If you can’t put the way your boss snapped at you out of your mind, you’re overthinking. If you plan ahead for all the different kinds of terrible bosses you might have one day and how you would handle each type, you’re worrying. Myself, I spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over highly unlikely events that could befall me...and yet when something difficult does come my way I buckle down, handle it, and put it behind me. So I am a worrier but actually not much of an overthinker. Nevertheless, I found this book extremely interesting and informative and caught snippets here and there very relevant to my own experiences.

One of the fundamental issues with overthinking is that people think what they’re doing is useful. Some people justify that by fixating on something that bothers them, they’re working through it. In truth, more often than not, fixating means stewing. Overthinkers wind themselves up, whether in anger, depression, or insecurity. Take the example from above of obsessing over how your boss snapped at you. An overthinker could dwell on this for hours or even days: “Maybe my boss was having a bad day. Maybe I messed up on something. Maybe she never really liked me, just usually hides it better.” Each thought balloons out with more and rarely buys the overthinker the resolve they want, but rather feeds the negativity.

Luckily, the author provides a plethora of concrete strategies for handling overthinking, most extremely simple. I realize now that I already use two of these strategies to steer away from overthinking without even knowing that’s what I was doing. The first is a variation on meditation; simply turn the thoughts away. How exactly people handle this differs depending on what works for you. I simply tell myself, “Nope, I won’t think about that.” Or “Not going there.” Usually that’s enough, but if not I might use a visualization exercise that I’ve done for meditation: picturing the thought as a physical thing trying to enter my mind, a physical space, and then imagining myself gently ushering the thought back out the door.  Some people actually say, “Stop!” aloud when they realize they’re overthinking or do something physical like shake their head. All that’s important here is that the method of self-correction works for you. The second strategy I’ve used is to schedule overthinking time. This sounds bizarre, but if you feel you need some time to obsess or if you believe you really should focus on this particular issue at some point without letting it consume your whole day, block out some time. If you catch your mind wandering to the issue, remind yourself it’s not time yet. I’ve only done this on a handful of occasions, usually when I don’t want something bothering me to slow my productivity. The interesting part about this approach is that many overthinkers find that whatever wound them up so much earlier seems much smaller and easier to handle if they make themselves wait a bit before reflecting on it.

The author uses plenty of case studies to make her points. I always enjoy case studies, because they move abstract psychological concepts into applicable situations. The earlier chapters are peppered with snippets from different case studies while later chapters - that zero in on specific, common overthinking pitfalls such as family, romantic relationships, work, and trauma - follow primarily one case study very closely. Some stories end happily with people who either learn how to handle their overthinking themselves or seek out help to do so,  while other case studies represent the cautionary tale side of spectrum: here’s what happens if you don’t address your overthinking.

Before wrapping up this review, I wanted to single out some of the facts, insights, and advice that I found most intriguing. For starters, there’s the fact that women overthink much more than men. I won’t go off on a longwinded tangent, but suffice it to say that the author fills an entire chapter, with additional mentions throughout the book, on how gender ties in with this problem. She also references something I’ve read in numerous psychology books: that our modern tendency to frequently ask ourselves, “Am I happy?” does more harm than good, leading us to dissect our lives in a manner unheard of in earlier generations.

I realized I’m guilty of one significant overthinking problem: when I’m down or upset I try to pinpoint why. This is dangerous because it asks us to break down our life into all the possible reasons we could be unhappy. The ridiculous truth is that maybe, while we’re wondering about big life questions, the real reason we’re down is the weather, hormones, our diet, or something else quite simple. Start small, the author suggests. If you insist on searching for why you’re low one day, ask yourself if it could be something you ate or not enough sleep before you jump to interrogating yourself about your marriage, career, and other life choices.

I agreed wholeheartedly with what the author says about forgiveness. Throughout the book and especially in the chapter focused on trauma, the author addresses overthinking terrible things that have happened to us, where we feel wronged, victimized, and entitled to justice or revenge. In summary, she explains that forgiveness is not condoning a person’s actions but accepting what happened, perhaps - in some situations - understanding the culprit’s motivations without excusing the crime, and ultimately letting go of any anger, anxiety, or despair this event created. Some people struggle with forgiveness, because they feel the culprit doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, but it’s not about what they deserve. It’s about what the victim deserves, which is: to forgive and move on, and to transition from the identity of a victim to that of a survivor.

The last topic I wanted to call out has to do with how we measure our success. Several psychological studies have discerned that some people measure success by their own performance while others measure success more by rank. In one study, participants performed a task and were then told how they performed. Some people only listened to whether the evaluation of their performance was good or bad and decided if they were successful or not based on that. However, other people paid close attention to everybody else’s evaluations and cared less about getting good or bad feedback than in ranking above their peers. They seemed more pleased if they got a bad evaluation that was better than someone else’s worse evaluation than if they got a great evaluation that was less impressive than someone else’s glowing evaluation. I singled this discussion out, no doubt, because I believe the first method (measuring success by your own performance) is better but fear I sometimes fall in the latter category (which may be inevitable, to some degree, as a writer; our work is constantly compared against others’ and found better or worse).   

It’s funny how a great book about the ways in which we should all think a little less can give us plenty of excellent food for thought! 

Friday, June 19, 2015

LADIES' NIGHT


Review of LADIES’ NIGHT by MARY KAY ANDREWS
(review based on audiobook, read by KATHLEEN MCINERNEY)

LADIES’ NIGHT is a light read, more entertainment reading that passes the time than something that pushes the envelope and challenges your perceptions. Grace and her husband Nick have a dream life, making an impressive living from Grace’s remarkably popular lifestyle blog. Grace writes the posts and Nick handles the business side, such as finding sponsors and advertisers. Then Grace catches her husband with her pretty, young assistant. At first it seems like the worst thing that could have happened to her. Then it gets worse. Nick is not about to let Grace walk away from their marriage with the blog that has supported both of them in grand style. He uses underhanded tricks Grace never would have anticipated to sabotage her image and fight for control of the original, namesake blog that already has so many devoted readers. Needless to say, this is a story about a pretty messy divorce. More importantly, though, it’s a story about staying strong and true to your own sense of what’s right despite a slew of deliberate destruction sent your way.

LADIES’ NIGHT is a good, fun read with my main criticism being that the characters often feel closer to caricatures than real people. You can usually tell whom you’re not supposed to like from the voice alone. Antagonists have annoying voices. Nick, the husband, in particular doesn’t feel real. He has an almost split personality, bouncing between being decent and mature when it suits the emotions for the scene to the pettiest, most vindictive jerk you’ve ever met when the story needs a despicable villain.

I invested in the story more than I expected. I frequently felt genuinely worked up at the injustice of it all and vastly admired Grace for how she carries on when it seems like her world is collapsing around her. I suppose the truth of the matter is that even if the characters aren’t always believable, nevertheless the story is. Grace puts me in mind of any number of true stories about women (or men) put in infuriatingly unfair circumstances who refuse to become bitter, who resist the urge to give up, and who prove that it’s not what happens to you that defines you but how you handle it.

I will also admit that the story wraps up a little too neatly at the end, a weakness I find more common in what I think of as entertainment reading. That being said, I enjoyed the book enough to seek out Mary Kay Andrews’ other books, so expect to see more reviews of her work soon!

Friday, June 12, 2015

SHANTARAM


Review of SHANTARAM by DAVID GREGORY ROBERTS

Several people have urged me to read this book over the years, but I’ve collected mixed reviews. Many adore the novel while some find themselves baffled at its popularity. Others, like myself, form more divided opinions that make it an excellent conduit for discussion.

I’m convinced that the book will appeal most to people obsessed with India. Personally, I’m obsessed with Japan and usually adore works with Japanese themes, settings, and/or characters.  At its core, SHANTARAM is a love letter to India. Now I’ve mentioned before in my Book Elements post that setting is what I care about least in a story. So novels where setting becomes a powerful character in its own right often don’t hold my attention very well. With SHANTARAM, I often caught myself wondering at the point of the story. The tale weaves, rambles, and wanders as it ambitiously recounts so many details that it loses some sense of focus and direction. Then I realized the point isn’t so much plot or characters, as is my preference (though there are plenty of engaging characters, but that’s another topic). The point is reveling in the wonder that is India.

I found the writing strong and skilled but sometimes overly stylistic. People with a similar mindset to the author and protagonist will obviously connect the most, but otherwise much of the writing feels a bit longwinded. The same can often be said as or more eloquently with far fewer words. Some sprawling descriptions of scenery or characters felt too indulgent to me. For example, if we establish up front that the character Karla has very pretty green eyes, we could cut pages upon pages of description regarding those eyes, including:

I tried once more to find the words for the foliant blaze of her green eyes. I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of island seas. But the living emerald in Karla’s eyes, made luminous by the sunflowers of gold light that surrounded the pupils, was softer, far softer.

The green of lagoons, where shallow water laps at golden sand.

The green that trees are, in vivid dreams. It was the green that the sea would be, if the sea were perfect.

I also considered some lines pretty nothings: aptly phrased but I disagree with the sentiment - such as the line: “I’d been a man who committed crimes...rather than a criminal, and there’s a difference.” A tempting thought, but ultimately what sounds to me like fanciful self-justification. However, other lines struck me just the right way. Here are a few of my favorites:

I was too young, then, to know that dead lovers are the toughest rivals.

Some women cry easily. The tears fall as gently as fragrant raindrops in a sun-shower, and leave the face clear and clean and almost radiant. Other women cry hard, and all the loveliness in them collapses in the agony of it.

There are few things more discomfiting than a spontaneous outburst of genuine decency from someone you’re determined to dislike for no good reason.

Good soldiers are defined by what they can endure, not by what they can inflict.

I think I could divide the book about half/half into insights I like and admire vs. those that had me either rolling my eyes or mentally ranting my disagreement. I do want to call attention, though, to the fact that I had consistently strong reactions rather than apathy.

I often found the story’s tone a little too sentimental for my taste. The primary romance plotline falls under the love at first sight category and is portrayed in larger than life terms that I ultimately find more cheesy than stirring. The sentimental isn’t confined to the romance either. A particular garment is portrayed as one of God’s finest works, gestures as windows to universal human emotion, and a bear’s growl called eloquent. A boy wins a fight by staring shame into his opponent until they embrace instead. I might connect with the underlying mentality of some of these things, but find the execution too over the top to take seriously.

I mentioned the word “longwinded” earlier. I am a big believer in the concept that less is more. I suspect this story could be told equally well (or possibly better) in about a third of the length. It’s a hefty tome at over a 1,000 pages. I feel that when an author asks a reader to invest more time in his or her work, each extra page should add something. I don’t mind length when I agree the story shouldn’t be trimmed, but in this case I felt SHANTARAM needed some brutal editing. For that matter, often the author puts forth a beautiful, admirable metaphor...only to repeat the same point twenty more times with varying metaphors. (Karla’s pretty green eyes serve as a prime example.) There’s also a lot of “if I knew then what I know now” foreshadowing that I find unnecessary. I will admit, though, that this lengthy book reads much faster than one might expect, likely in no small part because there is an engaging story at its core.

I haven't even touched on what the story’s about yet besides India (which is indeed primarily what it’s about). This epic, sprawling tale follows a man who escaped his lengthy sentence in Australian prison for armed robberies and then fled to India where he meets an assortment of interesting people and ultimately falls in with a group of intelligent and ruthless Indian gangsters. You only need to read the brief author biography at the end of the novel to realize this is a fictionalized autobiography, which invites plenty of speculation on the line between truth and fiction.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed this book throughout but it wasn’t until the end when I started understanding why some adore it so much. About three quarters of the way through this 1,000 page novel a few unexpected twists change the context of everything you have read so far.

Sadly, there’s a bit of an anticlimactic ending, especially for such a huge book. It’s the kind that feels more like trailing off than ending. Sometimes that works perfectly for a story, but after all the disparate elements I encountered in SHANTARAM I hoped for an end that found a little more connection between various plotlines.

In summary, a complex yet average story made noteworthy by an abundance of unique characters and a consuming passion for India . There’s not much structure to the plot more than “and then this happened,” but the story features a wealth of themes, relationships, and declarations that could each provoke hours of debate.

Friday, June 5, 2015

HEART OF THE MATTER


Review of HEART OF THE MATTER by EMILY GIFFIN
(review based on audiobook, read by CYNTHIA NIXON)

I have only recently started listening to audiobooks more. Honestly, I set the bar lower for audiobooks. My selections are usually books I’m not sure I’ll like; if I’m convinced I’ll love a book I want to read the paper copy. As for HEART OF THE MATTER, I had two reasons to suspect it might not be for me: 1. It’s by Emily Giffin, with whose work I have a love/hate relationship. And 2. The main storyline is about a potential affair and I often don’t find cheating that interesting as a secondary storyline let alone the main focus. While the audiobook held my attention more than I suspected (with complex characters - what I look for most in a book), as I anticipated I struggled investing much in the primary plotline.

Giffin’s work frequently centers on dynamic characters battling with adultery. The first part - dynamic characters - is what I love about her work. The latter - a fixation on adultery - is what I hate, often because I feel like the character’s actions are being justified to me as the reader. HEART OF THE MATTER did a much better job, I felt, of stepping back and telling a story about flawed people without interjecting hints about how I “should” feel - though I will admit to a sense of building the adulterers up as over-the-top good people as though to compensate for the principal focus on their decisions that hurt others.

In HEART OF THE MATTER, single mother Valerie is beyond devastated when an unprecedented accident at a birthday party leaves her son with terrible burns, including on his face. The tragedy brings them to renowned plastic surgeon, Nick, who specializes in re-crafting faces after mishaps such as these. Nick has a smart, beautiful, wonder-woman of a wife back home not to mention two adorable young children and Valerie knows perfectly well that her son’s new surgeon is married. Yet Nick finds himself drawn to this strong, single woman and her endearing, brave little boy while Valerie feels so connected to their empathetic doctor. The story alternates between Valerie’s viewpoint and that of Nick’s wife, Tessa, as she senses her husband pulling away before she even suspects anything specific.

There is an extremely slow build to the actual affair. Mostly the book examines how this can happen, even to well-intentioned people who aren’t merely selfish and opportunistic. The story carefully sets the groundwork piece by piece, laying out the attraction, the vulnerabilities, the temptation, and the faltering will to resist. Then the story wraps up fairly quickly after the inevitable fallout. I personally would have preferred more focus on the repercussions and the decisions everyone ultimately makes and less on what feels like long-winded rationalization.

A big part of why I enjoyed this audiobook, though, is that I loved the narrator, Cynthia Nixon. She makes following along with the story easy and she naturally slips between different character voices and the smooth, sober voice she uses for the main prose (which provides the perfect background for all the turmoil and inner reflection).

For the most part, I admired the craftsmanship of these characters. Each is flawed but likable and Giffin seems careful not to villainize or show preference for any one character. I particularly enjoyed Tessa’s plotline as the housewife suspicious she’s being betrayed. All kind of themes of gender, feminism, and relationships seep up from subtext to explicit focus as Tessa wonders if Nick appreciates how she gave up her high powered career to take better care of their home and children - or if he only views her as lesser now. Tessa’s mother passionately warned her against being a stay-at-home mother, insisting that it makes women more susceptible to this kind of thing. The husband may express sincere gratitude for all the wife does at home, but he still views her work as easier and, as Tessa’s mother maintains, his eye can be easily drawn by the next driven, accomplished, impressive woman to come his way. I also thought that Nick’s role as doctor to Valerie’s son added another layer of misplaced trust. Aside from any arguments about the ethics of cheating, I felt very much that Nick, albeit not deliberately, takes advantage of his role of power and support in a time of great need and vulnerability.

I suspect I might not have liked this book at all had it not been for the children. Kids add further complications to adultery. First, because people who might simply leave an unhappy relationship without kids won’t necessarily do the same when there’s kids involved. Second, because they are yet more people hurt by these decisions. Though Valerie expresses regret for hurting any other woman and Tessa in particular, her primary remorse is the fear that she’s allowing a stable father figure into her son’s life only for him to be ripped away whenever Nick realizes he really belongs elsewhere.

As I touched on, the ending feels somewhat anticlimactic. It tries not to wrap things up too neatly but in avoiding that particular pitfall it falls into the reverse one of being somewhat unsatisfying by the lack of any closure or final note. The story essentially trickles off and leaves the reader to write the rest in your own head as you see fit.

I go back and forth on whether or not this a good book group book. On the one hand, there is plenty to discuss and cheating is a heated topic. However, most people already have quite firm, unyielding opinions on this matter, which cripples debates. A good argument takes place between two or more sides each willing to keep their mind open enough to listen, genuinely consider the new perspective, and possibly adjust their view.

Had I read this as a physical book I likely would have been more frustrated with its weaknesses, but as something I could listen to in the background while working on other things I really enjoyed musing over the characters and themes.