Friday, January 31, 2020

NIGHTINGALES


Review of NIGHTINGALES: THE EXTRAORDINARY UPBRINGING AND CURIOUS LIFE OF MISS FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by GILLIAN GILL

What I enjoy the most about reading nonfiction is when you think you know about a topic but discover how little you actually knew. Most everyone has at the very least heard the name Florence Nightingale, and I even include young children in that bold phrase “most everyone.” She’s renowned for her service as a nurse, specifically for her work during the Crimean War, as well as for how her professional ambitions and exceptional work ethic helped the women’s movement at the time.

Of course, that’s not where Florence’s story begins nor where it ends. I didn’t know what an unusual childhood she had for her time, although it makes sense that being raised against the norm teaches one to challenge the norm. It becomes very clear that Florence wouldn’t have become the woman she did, nor have been able to accomplish all that she had, without the support of her family. That’s not to say that everyone was supportive about everything all the time, but Florence’s family was certainly unique in how much they indulged their daughter’s controversial life choices.  

Florence’s father (known as W.E.N.) particularly stands out: as a very attentive, caring parent in an era where most wealthy families left their children to be raised by nursery maids and mothers stereotypically showed more concern for their children than fathers. Florence’s father not only doted on his children, but took his controversial parenting a step further by educating his daughters significantly beyond the norm. Whether we’re talking specific subjects, scope of overall education, depth of study, or means of gaining new knowledge (like reading), W.E.N. encouraged his daughters to defy expectations and pursue their intellectual interests.

Florence’s mother, “Fanny,” on the other hand, blamed much of Florence’s unbecoming behavior on an overactive mind pushed past the limits of good female health. Needless to say, Fanny wasn’t nearly as on board with W.E.N.’s ambitious educational curriculum for their daughters. Throughout Florence’s life, her mother expressed concern about Florence’s nontraditional choices, especially in terms of the unwanted social scrutiny those choices brought towards the entire family.

I found myself most affected by the portrayal of Florence’s relationship with her sister, Parthenope. From all descriptions, it sounds like Parthenope was a wonder of a woman tragically relegated to her sister’s shadow. She spoke many languages, studied literature and art and music, and understood politics, history, and philosophy better than most women of her time. However, Florence always outperformed older sister. It’s difficult to ever know a person’s heart, but from available information, it sounds like Parthenope—for the most part—did not resent her sister, even though Florence could be a very trying person to love. Instead Parthenope acted as another pillar of support for Florence, helping bring forth her younger sister’s potential.

Florence had several other influential family relationships, but so much more fascinating detail about her life lies beyond her blood relations. She had several suitors and came quite close to marrying a cousin; her ultimate rejection of said cousin caused a serious rift between the families, who had both been anticipating a happy union. She also had a nine-year courtship with a politician suitor before finally explicitly admitting, to him and herself, that she believed marriage would interfere with her nursing goals. Perhaps what most surprised me about Florence’s life was to learn that she was intermittently bedridden from the age of 37 to her death at 90. I never realized that a lot of her accomplishments in the field of nursing were achieved through letters and other writings delivered from her bedroom during periods of illness.  I also found the discussion of petty work politics in the nursing field all too relatable. Before Florence could institute any of the most impactful changes she had in mind, she had to navigate a mundanely familiar sea of egos, personnel clashes, and bureaucracy.

Unless you’re already a Florence Nightingale expert, I’ll bet you don’t know her as well as you think you do. While she has always been an intriguing historical figure for me, her life and family history proved far more unusual than I anticipated. As someone living in an American culture focused on individualism, this book is an especially powerful record about the rippling benefits of challenging social norms.

Friday, January 24, 2020

REMEMBER ME?


Review of REMEMBER ME? by SOPHIE KINSELLA

Sophie Kinsella remains my all-time favorite chick-lit author. I have mixed feelings about the genre. On the positive, I enjoy a light-hearted, funny read now and again, but on the negative, I often find chick-lit novels too shallow. With exceptions, chick-lit often follows a similar pattern: average (which apparently means somewhat superficial) young woman finds herself in a ridiculous circumstance. Hilarity ensues, including woman embarrassing herself more than once. When you think things can’t get worse, they do, but somehow everything ties up neatly with work, friends, family, and romance problems all resolving. Oh, and the romantic interest is almost always a secret millionaire, one of my biggest pet peeves with the formula.

In REMEMBER ME?, our heroine Lexi wakes up in a hospital with amnesia. Right off the bat, let me say that this is one of the few amnesia storylines that I love. Mostly, because it’s funny, but also because Kinsella handles the emotional issues very well. Lexi seems to have woken up to a perfect life. She went from snaggle-toothed and chubby to a slick, skinny, styled babe. Oh, and don’t forget flexible. Apparently, she started doing yoga in the period she’s forgotten. She has a gorgeous, considerate husband and thanks to both his work and her own promotions, they live in a stellar loft and want for nothing.

Of course, nothing’s as perfect as it seems. While Lexi looks how she always imagined she wanted, the abrupt change is jarring and, as she asks around, she doesn’t like discovering the emotional baggage that motivated these changes. Also in climbing the ladder at work, she apparently lost all her closest friends. And her perfect husband emphasizes why perfect is overrated, especially when he presents her with a “Marriage Manual” that includes a step-by-step section on foreplay.

Kinsella is one of the few chick-lit authors who pairs her amusing frivolity with enough deeper meaning to satisfy my particular tastes. REMEMBER ME? is the perfect literary palate cleanser of lighthearted hilarity.



SPOILER ALERT

I especially like how Kinsella subverts the love triangle trope. For the entire book, I understood Lexi’s attraction to both men, but wondered how she could choose either when she remembers neither. I love the line where Lexi comes to the same conclusion: “I can’t just run straight from one guy I don’t remember into the arms of another.”

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 11


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 11, Recovering a Sense of Autonomy

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 11 helps us with “recovering a sense of autonomy.” It’s the second-to-last week and I feel sad that it’s almost over, like at the end of a great vacation or summer camp. This week’s chapter is all about accepting ourselves. While one can argue that’s what we’ve been working on through the whole program, I think we’ve been more steadily building towards this week’s true, full acceptance.

Cameron discusses the importance of separating creativity from success. Our creative value shouldn’t be measured by such external factors. She also hypes up the importance of exercise and, as a bit of a fitness addict myself, I avidly agree. Yes, it’s good for health, but there’s also more carryover benefits than one might think. Exercise is all about steady, slow self-improvement. It’s proof that small, manageable steps lead to great outcomes. Running a marathon may not seem to have anything to do with writing a book, but it proves to yourself that you can finish something. All it required was steady effort.

I skipped Cameron’s assignment of creating an “artist’s altar,” but I feel that it’s very similar to what I’ve already started doing with my inspirational poster (see my Week 1 post). This week also asked us to do one nurturing thing for ourselves every day. I found that excessive, but it just demonstrates how contrary it is to my nature. I think I nurture myself plenty…but every day? My “nurturing” included working on said inspirational poster, baking a cake, and finally buying a cookbook I’ve been talking about wanting almost every week for six months.

I liked meditating to my own recorded voice reading the Basic Principles. Honestly, I liked them better that way, though I don’t know what that says about my ego! Perhaps I just like my own tonal emphasis on phrases that make me work for the meaning. I also enjoyed listing ten wishes for the following categories: health, possessions, leisure, relationships, creativity, career, and spirituality. It was especially freeing that these wishes don’t need to be realistic. I wrote down a few things I want but know will never happen, another rather therapeutic exercise. I expected to find writing a letter to my Inner Artist silly, but to my surprise I not only loved it but loved it enough to add my letter to my inspirational poster. Mine is more like an apology, for neglecting and dismissing my “Inner Artist” all these years, trying to push with guilt rather than love, as well as a promise to treat myself differently moving forward.

Inspired by the Basic Principles meditation assignment, I did more meditating for my artist date this week and really liked it. Not an easy thing for someone who is all about productivity, but that’s also why I think I could gain a lot from meditation. I’m going to try to make it a regular habit, maybe starting with a mere ten minutes once a week. Slow, steady steps.

I skipped three of my seven morning pages this week. Cameron warns that most people avoid these pages when they’re processing a lot of negative emotions and that proved the case for me. I hit a major personal bump this week and, my apologies, but I’m going to be vague in what I share. Throughout this program, Cameron discusses how some relationships are built on sharing each other’s insecurities; when one person moves from insecure to confident, the other might behave more sabotaging than supportive. I rolled my eyes at and laughed off her repeated warnings about how other blocked creatives don't like watching their friends becoming unblocked. I felt convinced that all my prominent relationships are entirely healthy and supportive, and some silly self-therapy program is hardly going to trigger any major changes. Now I feel Cameron predicted something I didn’t see coming. This may sound superstitious, but I believe it's basic psychology: misery loves company. If you're lucky enough to find this program helps you replace stress and anxiety with peace and contentment, well, you may be surprised by who's not happy to see you happy.

This was a hard week for me personally, but only further convinced me of the value of this program.  Some relationships I thought were strong suddenly crumbled, but the timing speaks volumes about the noticeable change in my attitude. I'm happier, more content and relaxed, less stressed and anxious, more optimistic and mindful. I don't think this program created problems in my relationships; I think a healthier outlook allowed me to see problems I overlooked before. Also, as depressed as these incidents made me, I feel Cameron’s program provided me with an excellent tool chest for taking care of myself during a hard time.

Friday, January 10, 2020

THE DEAF WAY II ANTHOLOGY


Review of THE DEAF WAY II ANTHOLOGY: A LITERARY COLLECTION BY DEAF AND HARD OF HEARING WRITERS edited by TONYA M. STREMLAU

My only criticism about this, and other collections, comes down to personal taste. Because the linking theme here is Deafness, the genre of writing varies greatly. I found myself less interested in the poetry, of which there’s plenty, as well as the play (I love plays, but prefer to see them in the theater rather than read the script). That disclaimer aside, I did discover several standouts as well as stories geared specifically my tastes.

I’m most excited about Raymond Luczak’s fantasy story, “Depths of the River.” Big surprise; anyone who reads my blog knows that, while I’m an eclectic reader, my heart stays with fantasy. And, frankly, deaf and hard-of-hearing characters are massively underrepresented in that specific genre. However, that sad fact made it extra satisfying to read a compelling, well-written fantasy story featuring such elements. I also enjoyed Luczak’s other, non-fantasy entry, though very different.

In terms of other favorites, I really liked Melissa Whalen’s nonfiction focused on some typical deaf experiences. Her prose reads smoothly and reminded me of fiction; it felt more like I was reading a story than a memoir, which as a big fiction reader I mean as a compliment. Her content was also very absorbing, with one piece focusing on tinnitus and another discussing the pledge of allegiance. I agree with the writing advice that discourages vaguely rambling about the horrors of war and instead suggests mentioning specifics such as a child’s discarded shoe by the roadside. Whalen embodies that advice by narrowing deaf experience to detailed specifics and pulling forth universal emotions. I can’t fathom what it’s like to be deaf in our society, especially from one story, but I can empathize with the individual experiences that Whalen portrays.

Now despite my earlier disclaimer about my lukewarm interest in poetry, I did find some that appealed to me here. I liked the pieces that worked with the visual layout to add emphasis: what Curtis Robbins did with spacing and how Justine Vogenthaler adds something with bolded phrases. I found this especially meaningful in this particular anthology, since Deaf culture is so visual.

It’s a frustration of mine that many books by or about marginalized groups become marginalized themselves. Readers often think the book is only “for” people who identify with that group. What a shame and what a loss. I’m here to tell you that THE DEAF WAY ANTHOLOGY is a varied and talented collection for anyone who likes, well, reading.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Favorite Books Read in 2019


For those who follow my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2019. All the books I reviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I reviewed in 2019, not necessarily books published in 2019.

1.     EATING MINDFULLY by SUSAN ALBERS

There are a lot of other books out there telling you what to eat, but most of us could benefit more from considering how we eat. This small book is packed full of inspiring insight and mantras, helpful beginner exercises, and plenty of fodder for self-reflection and self-growth. Change the way you eat; change the way you think.

2.     THE HOW CAN IT BE GLUTEN-FREE COOKBOOK by AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN

After learning I have Celiac disease and should never eat gluten again, I started teaching myself gluten-free cooking. While many of the gluten-free cookbooks I’ve tried have been disappointing, I found every single recipe from this one easy to follow and the results delicious. I’m discovering a few other good gluten-free cookbooks, but this one remains far and away my absolute favorite.

3.     BELLADONNA by ANNE BISHOP

This sequel to SEBASTIAN follows his infamously powerful cousin, our title-namesake Belladonna, as she prepares for the final showdown with the Eater of the World. Meanwhile, she meets a young man named Michael who, like herself, has been isolated from society for his unusual powers. 

4.     MURDER OF CROWS by ANNE BISHOP

The second book in Bishop’s THE OTHERS series opens with tensions already high between humans and the Others. After an incident of particularly underhanded sabotage, relations only worsen. Bishop remains one of my all-time-favorite authors: a master of her own comforting, utterly addictive, dark fantasy romance formula.

5.     BECOMING A WRITER by DOROTHEA BRANDE

First published in 1934, this book feels just as relevant today: proof that content shifts more than craft. Brande focuses on a combination of craft and philosophy: addressing emotional difficulties of the profession while also providing specific self-discipline exercises. My favorite is putting your distractible writer self on a time out.

6.     THE ARTIST’S WAY by JULIA CAMERON

Through twelve weeks of reading and exercises, Cameron encourages readers to find words for their psychological creative blocks and learn how to overcome those barriers. With insight and assignments centered on self-reflection, self-care, and self-improvement, she teaches sustainable, mindful habits for healthy, happy creative expression.

7.     INKDEATH by CORNELIA FUNKE

This conclusion to the INKHEART trilogy sees our young heroine Meggie trapped in the magical world of Inkheart with her father and other comrades, where they must find a way to defeat the cruel Adderhead. I love this series for its reading-centric magic system; the only way to defeat the Adderhead involves an extremely exceptional book.

8.     DAVID AND GOLIATH by MALCOLM GLADWELL

This popular nonfiction author delivers a fascinating book about underdogs, subverting expectations, and thinking outside the box. From girls’ basketball to organic chemistry to racial tension, Gladwell provides specific but eclectic case examples of people who approached problems in unique ways.   

9.     THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE by PHILIPPA GREGORY

After THE CONSTANT PRINCESS about Katherine of Aragon and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL about Anne and Mary Boleyn, Gregory delivers another gripping novel about Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives. THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE picks up after Jane Seymour’s death and follows King Henry’s fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleaves and Katherine Howard, as well as Jane Rochford, the window of Anne Boleyn’s brother.

10.  BIRD BY BIRD by ANNE LAMOTT

In this renowned book about writing, Lamott focuses on the emotional turmoils of pursuing a career as an author. She discusses typical writer advice, such as critique partners and outside perceptions of the field, as well as more unique topics, such as professional jealousy. Her distinct and well-articulated perspective makes even familiar insight a worthwhile read for any writer.  

11.  A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by GEORGE R.R. MARTIN

This fifth installment in the widely popular A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series feels like more of the same, a great thing for the many hardcore fans. Pay attention as we follow dozens of distinct and intriguing characters navigating their way through this complex world and its brutal politics.

12.  REDEFINING REALNESS by JANET MOCK

With beautiful writing and impressive insight, Mock’s memoir distinguishes itself within a flooded genre. Clearly a very reflective person, Mock has had plenty of time to consider the labels society has given her: multi-racial, trans, victim, poor. She not only shares her specific experiences, but delves deeper for the universal meaning.

13.  THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

When single Sophie’s one-who-got-away, now-married ex contacts her, the last thing she expects is that his aunt passed away…and left her house to Sophie. The house is on a tiny island legendary for an unsolved mystery: when a baby was found abandoned with no trace of what happened to her parents.

14.  WHAT ALICE FORGOT by LIANE MORIARTY

As a generalization, I’m not a fan of amnesia storylines; WHAT ALICE FORGOT is one of the few exceptions, simply because Moriarty skillfully triggers all my empathy vividly imagining Alice’s scared confusion.  Last that she remembers, Alice was young and madly in love. Then she wakes in the hospital: apparently ten years older, the mother of three children, and divorcing the love of her life.

15.  ABHORSEN and ACROSS THE WALL by GARTH NIX

ABHORSEN continues the namesake trilogy, jumping right into the drama and action cut off at the end of LIRAEL. ACROSS THE WALL, on the other hand, is an eclectic series of short stories that opens with a gripping, action-packed tale set in the same world as the trilogy.

16.  BLOOD OF TYRANTS and LEAGUE OF DRAGONS by NAOMI NOVIK

The eighth book of this wonderful series finds Laurence stranded in Japan with amnesia and separated from his dragon Temeraire. Then the ninth and last book presents our heroes with a rare opportunity to finally stop Napoleon’s reign of terror. I was sad to see this beloved series end, but will long remember the well-mannered dragon Temeraire and his comrades.

17.  SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

This novel opens on Miryem, a moneylender who earns herself a reputation for turning silver into gold. That reputation causes her no small amount of trouble when the fairy king takes it literally. This haunting book feels both wistfully familiar with classic fairy tale themes as well as captivatingly unique with multiple compelling heroines and a storyline that goes well beyond its inspiration.  


This might be the single best book about writing, specifically the craft of writing, that I’ve read. A professional editor herself, Morell presents the convincing opinion that it’s easier to discuss and avoid the pitfalls of bad writing than try to describe good writing. To that end, she provides numerous, thorough checklists for assessing and revising your work.

19.  POISON, CHARM, and BEAUTY by SARAH PINBOROUGH

These fairy tale retellings look more directly at the dark subtext in these classics, spinning adult versions centered around lust, greed, ego, and cruelty. Though they can be read as standalones, the books work together as a longer story and each novel pulls on more than one fairy tale influence. 


Twylla is both her kingdom’s future queen, currently engaged to their prince, as well as the kingdom’s executioner, since her bare skin kills anyone who touches it. This young adult fantasy trilogy stood out in a crowded genre; I passionately invested in the characters and tore eagerly through the enthralling storyline.

21.  THE GLASS CASTLE by JEANETTE WALLS

To say Walls had an unusual childhood is a laughable understatement. In this stunning memoir, she relays the emotional complexity of her upbringing through short chapters, each detailing a specific memory. What I admire most is Walls’ restraint: both by describing emotionally charged events without much sentimental commentary and by portraying individuals as complicated and contradictory rather than caricaturizing them.
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