and now for something completely different.
and now for something completely different.
When Beth and I decided we were really going to get on this thing and use this space and do some writing, we decided that we both needed a recurring series. Beth has been doing the Series You Should Check Out. These have been enjoyable to read (and have definitely put books into my TBR pile) and they’ve even gotten us a couple of author retweets. (Which, I have to say, was super exciting for both of us!) I decided to go in a different direction and review at least one non-fiction book a month. I flippantly titled this recurring series This Month in Reality. And, while not getting us any retweets, it has at least gotten me the personal satisfaction of engaging in some topics that I’ve had an interest in but have maybe not have made time for. The books that I read this year can probably be divided into three categories: Self help (dating advice,exercise, etc, New Years resolutions and Mesoamerican History! *only self-help for me because I study Mesoamerica*. ) Pop Culture Interest (the life and times of Kim Gordon, Piper Kerman and Orange is the New Black,Pop Physics,Travel as a metaphor for personal growth, Oscar winners ) meditation (Meditation and Science, meditation and practice, meditation AND pop culture). I’m so proud of my accidental consistency. I plan to continue this column in the coming year and I will also endeavor to be consistent, although more intentionally so. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year considering who holds space and who is asking for it in our society, so expect to see books that help me meditate on and answer that question in 2016. But, before we get to 2016, I’d like to say goodbye to 2015 to revisiting my favorite reads/listens in reality this year! So, in no particular order:
<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/07/31/this-month-in-reality-love-and-revolution/> Revolution by Russell Brand</a>.
This book hit me right in the feels. In a moment of synchronicity, I listened to this book at the exact right time for me because the messages of his book, that love is important and should be cherished and cultivated and that if something isn’t working we have to try something new and endeavor to make it better, were both things I needed to hear. It feels a little trite to say that a celebrity known for being a dirty hippie who once did a lot of drugs said the things that I needed to hear (especially when those things are stuff like, “your reality is the result of your attention and intention” and “sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse”) but it’s true so I might as well own it. I think Brand is a funny dude and I think the ideas he discusses are worthy ideas. So, if you’re feeling despairing and fed up with what the world looks like, take a break and hang out with this squirrelly English dude. Maybe he’ll say what you need to hear, too. (Or, maybe you’ll hate it and it’ll be one of those hate reads which is also cathartic. I don’t know. You do you.)
<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/04/02/this-month-in-reality-travel-as-a-metaphor-for-personal-growth/>Eat, Pray, Love</a>
I wanted so badly to hate this book. No, really. I wanted to hate this book because knowing barely anything about Elizabeth Gilbert (except the general plot of this story) I had decided that Gilbert was a selfish person who does what she likes and (mis)uses foreign cultures to justify her self-serving decisions. Now, maybe my original judgments about her are true and maybe they aren’t. But, try as I might to hate this book, I just couldn’t. I found this book to be tremendously enjoyable. In the book someone suggests to her that every person and every city has a word that sums them up. When you find the city that you match, you’ve found your home. This is a clue to her that it is time to move on. I really liked this idea and I spent a long time considering what my word is. I just went back through a bunch of text messages with a friend who loved the book to see if I had come to a decision about my word. I think it might be “chameleon”. But, I’m still not sure. This book was a beautiful, painful, wonderful read. I’m so happy I picked it up!
<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/10/31/this-month-in-reality-mesoamerican-history/>Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Professor Edwin Barnhart</a>
I picked up this lecture series from audible because I thought, “What the hell? You know practically nothing about the historical context that gave birth to this language context you study, what could it hurt?” Nothing, I decided. And, I’m so glad that I picked it up. It covers the Toltecs, Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Tarascans, Aztecs, and Mayans: all of whom had empires in Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of Columbus. Did you know that? Prior to reading this audio book, these were names I knew, but I didn’t realize the the history that these names conveyed. These were huge empires that had sweeping impact on the culture, the people, and the land. How cool is that? Audible has an entire series of lectures, so if you’re interested in learning a little about anything, you might find something that will capture your interest! I, of course, recommend starting in Mesoamerica.
I hope that you have enjoyed learning a little this year along with me and that 2016 will bring us more knowledge about this cool and exciting world we live in!
I did it. I have completed my summer’s Pop Culture Homework Assignment and still have a couple more weeks before the kids go back to school. (Kids in NYC go back ridiculously late.) I’ve read four books. Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, 13 Blue Little Envelopes and Last Little Blue Envelope (extra credit) by Maureen Johnson and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I feel very good about all of this. I’ve read three non-fiction books, which is three more than I read all of last year. I read about two brave women and how they overcame their struggles and came out stronger. I got a feel for what it’s like to hike and camp and it still has no appeal to me but I can see how it might appeal to others. I also got to read a new book form an author I really like. I would say it was a productive summer.
So A Walk in the Woods was enjoyable. I can definitely see why Kate loves it so much. Bill and his friend Stephen Katz are two people who probably shouldn’t be hiking but they did and they made it. Ok, maybe Bill but definitely not Katz. Bill moves to New Hampshire and finds out it’s right by the Appalachian Trail and decides, he’s going to hike it because why not. Out of no where, his long lost friend Katz decides to do it with him. Like Cheryl in Wild, they have no idea of what they are getting themselves into. Sure, they’ve done some hiking before but nothing like this. Reading their misadventures was a delight. From their struggles with their packs, the people they meet and their run-ins with animals that were real or imaginary was amusing. The best part of the book is when they are together. In the middle, Katz has to go back to Des Moines for a job and Bill continues on his own. It’s not that I don’t like Bill, it’s I liked him more when he had Katz to play off. If they were a comedic duo, Bill would be Desi to Katz’s Lucy. The book read faster and I was more interested. When it was just Bill, I felt like he spent more talking about history and other tangents and while interesting, it slowed the pace down. Maybe he spent so much time talking about other things because he was by himself he obviously didn’t have any witty dialogue to include. The Appalachian Trail is older then the Pacific Crest Trail that Cheryl hiked and so it had a lot more places to stop. Also, it’s surrounded by more towns and people, so Bill and Katz had more chances of interacting with people on and off the trail. It was interesting to see how they were treated when they left the trail. In some cases like Gods and others indifference. All and all it was an enjoyable read. I’m glad I read it.
On to the final book of my Pop Culture Homework Assignment. Let’s do this.
I remember years ago, Madonna was quoted as saying that she wasn’t a religious person but a spiritual one. For the life of me I can’t find the actual quote. Internet, you have failed me! This seemed strange to me at the time because Madonna was very much in her Kabbalah phase and it seemed like everything in her life was influenced by it. Just listen to albums Ray of Light through Confessions on a Dance Floor for more evidence. She has since have moved on from Kabbalah. I’m not sure if she is still practicing or not but the presence is not as prevalent in her music as it used to be. Does one have to actively practice a religion to be that religion? The one thing that stuck with me from my Introduction to Islam class I took in college (taught by New York Times Bestseller, Reza Aslan. Yep, I’m totally name dropping!) was that in Islam, if you don’t practice you really can’t be really considered Muslim. Now, I took that class *gulp* over 10 years ago, so I apologize if that is not entirely accurate but I do remember that Islam is a very practical religion as well. As Mr. Aslan explained, if you couldn’t pray five times a day at the right time that’s ok, as long as you get those prayers in sometime during the day. If you can’t fast during Ramadan because of work, illness or other circumstances, that’s fine, too, as long as you make time to fast later to make up for it. That last point was illustrated to me when a former co-worker had to skip a week of fasting during the month of Ramadan because she was having stomach pain. As soon as she was feeling better, she completed that week of fasting. This makes sense to me. If you think about it, you really don’t have to go to church or read the bible to call yourself a Christian.
Why do I bring all this up? Well, both of these things were going through my mind as I was reading this book. Anne Lamott talks to openly and honestly about her faith. She puts to paper all her failings, fears and shortcomings. Even after finding a church and Christianity, she still struggles with keeping faith. She still has moments of “Dear God, why is this happening?” I’m a big fan of her two favorite prayers of “Help Me Help Me Help Me” and “Thank You Thank You Thank You”. I appreciate how she talks about her journey but makes it clear that this is her journey. She’s not forcing her beliefs on the reader but is more saying “this is what happened to me and this worked for me and maybe something like it will work for you”. I appreciate that. I was truly touched by her story. I haven’t been to a church going person since I completed confirmation when I was 13. I’ve found many things that people who say they are Christians to be incredibly offensive and contrary to the Christianity that I grew up with. I also studied a lot of Medieval History in college for my major and well, I haven’t really been able to look at Christianity the same since. We seem to think that religious institutions are unchanging and infallible but anyone who has studied history has seen how much the church has changed to fit in with the times it was in. Religions are always changing, growing and to say otherwise is just, well, naive and ignorant. This is why at times I have called myself agnostic because I do believe that a God exists or at least a higher power exists. I wasn’t sure I could really call myself a Christian knowing all these things. I didn’t want to be associate with the likes of the Duggars and Westboro Churches of the world or have people think that I was like them. I sort of backed way from all religions for awhile. Now, that Madonna quote from the beginning makes sense to me. I wouldn’t say I’m religious or even spiritual but I would say that I have faith. I would say I still believe in the basic Christian belief that God loves all his children when it comes down to it. I don’t need to go to church or read the bible to be a good Christian. I just need to be a good person and treat people with love and dignity because isn’t that what Jesus would do? I came to this realization a couple of years ago so reading this book didn’t really change my mind but it did cement my thinking. Miss Lamott found a certain peace in her faith and I have found it in mine. We are practicing it differently but ultimately we have come to the same place and I know Miss Lamott would respect and love that. So Thank You Thank You Thank You
Now I am halfway through my Pop Culture homework assignment. I’m looking forward to something that hopefully won’t make me cry while I’m on the subway.
So, Russell Brand’s third book is about the state of the world and what we can all do to change it. He does his usual comedy schtick but he also presents the views of public figures, past and present, who are advocating for change. I checked this book out from the library to listen to while I cleaned my apartment and but I found myself often just listening. There were many touching and poignant things in the novel. Brand gets personal and talks about painful breakups and relationships and his history of addiction. He gets global and he talks about alternative energy and failures in many governmental systems world wide. One of the things that he keeps coming back to is small groups of people coming together to take care of themselves and effect change.
To be quite honest, I was very touched by this book. I found that it stuck with me long after I had put it down.
When people have to take to the streets because they are being injured or killed by a police service that is not part of the community and not serving the community the system isn’t working. When congress can spend an entire session not passing bills, not appointing people to positions that need to be filled, not taking care of veterans, and not debating or discussing any issues that affect the lives of the people that they actually represent, the system isn’t working. When we expect students to get a college degree to get a good job but that college degree will set them back thousands and thousands of dollars into debt (and when that degree is no guarantee that a good job will ever be available), the system is broken. When apples are shipped to another continent to be processed and then shipped back to be sold (or fish are caught, frozen, shipped to another continent thawed, scaled and boned, refrozen and shipped back) the system isn’t working. Or, maybe it is working and it is just a stupid system.
I think we can all agree that at least some of those things sound crazy. I mean, at least the fish and the apple thing. I hope the other things as well.
So, the question is, if the system isn’t working, how do we as people, come together and fix the system or change the system or make the system work? The big question that we all have ask ourselves is what are the things that are important to us? How do we center those important things in our lives and in our policies? How do we create a government that is on the same page as we are?
Brand has some suggestions but three of the things that he keeps coming back to are meditation, people coming together to change something, and love.
These are things that have been on my mind recently. Meditation because I have become increasingly aware of how some sort of meditation practice could benefit me. People coming together because of all of the movements that are rolling and changing things (#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and #lovewins as possible examples). Love for a possibly bizarre reason. I have about one year left on my PhD and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next. All of that thinking about the future has really highlighted what is important to me and it turns out that what’s important to me is a need to be near people I love. One of the things I took from reading this book was that, yes, the world is in an awful state and it can be an awful place. But, it doesn’t have to be. We can work together to make it better. We can be there for each other, we can support each other and we don’t have to take any of this as, “that’s just the way the world works.” Naw. The world works the way we work and if we want to change something, we should.
This book was full of a lot of really quotable things that as a listener I kept coming back to like: “Sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse.” (Or, not.) I could not have heard this quote a better time. Sometimes, you just have to be reminded that your only options are to be a dick or to be a compassionate human being.
In a discussion of suffragette Emily Davison who worked the get women the vote in England, Brand pointed out that were former leaders of past revolutions to be magically transported in time to now that they might not be encouraging people to vote but rather to riot. It is important to remember that even leaders of peaceful movements did not countenance peace in all instances and that we need to be very careful not to take their life’s work out of context. (We especially need to be careful not to take their life’s work out of context in order to silence a vocal minority that is looking to be heard or that is looking for justice.)
But, the best part of this book for me was maybe how personal it was. Brand reminds you over and over again that you don’t need a perfect solution now, that you can start where you are, that you can do something small and that you, right now, are enough and that you do not need to change. You are okay. I was a little surprised at first by how affected I was to hear that. But, I think we get messages every day about how inadequate we are and we are so habituated to seeing and hearing them that we don’t even question them. Having a weirdo comedian who has had many hilarious (possibly unintentionally so) hairstyles remind me to begin where I am was oddly comforting. Knowing that this guy, who is probably a total dick, is trying his best for his community, was moving. Listening to Brand talk about his many fuck ups and shortcomings was oddly empowering.
Brand reminds us that, “This is your planet, you can change it if you want to. You can change it by doing loads of drug or having it off with loads of women or going on a murderous rampage with a licensed weapon. Doesn’t it make more sense though to change it by binding together with your fellow man and working to create a society that is fair and just? Of course it does!”
So, if you’re interested in hearing a comedian discuss the work of forward-thinking people and talk about revolution, meditation, and power structures, I highly recommend this book.
I checked the audio for this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries.
Back to my Pop Culture Homework. I remember when Kate was a bookseller she used to recommend this book to customers so I know how much she loves it so I’m pretty sure I’ll like it too.
There was a recent discussion on Twitter about whether or not you avoid reading popular books. Is the fact that the book is popular and “You just got to read it” a turn on or turn off. Whether a book is popular is not really a selling point for me but I’m not going to avoid reading it if it is. Unless it’s an Oprah book. Now bear with me. Oprah’s Book Club has done so much to get people to read and for that I applaud her. It has also been a boom for the publishing industry, it has promoted authors that probably would never get exposure or that level of exposure but as a former bookseller, it made my life difficult. I know, it sounds weird but ask any bookseller. For years, Oprah wouldn’t announce her new pick until she did it on her show. People would immediately come into stores asking for the new Oprah book and we wouldn’t have a clue what they were talking about since we were working and not watching Oprah. And rarely would people who watched the show know the title of the book they must read and would come in with no information. Now, it’s a little easier. Oprah works more with publishers to make sure her picks are ready to go with her sticker already on the book when she makes her announcements. Also, now with the internet, if customers come in for her books and we were left unaware, they could look it up more easily but yeah Oprah. Also I found that a lot of her picks were the same. Different authors but all carried the same theme and that didn’t appeal to me.
Why bring this up? Wild was the first book in Oprah’s book club 2.0 and quickly became the “You just have to read” book. It’s also a memoir and I think we have established I don’t read much non-fiction. So I had no interest in reading it. I still had no interest in reading it when Kate assigned it to me but I’m glad I did. I was truly touched by Cheryl’s story. I was in tears when she was describing the death of her mother. I don’t even want to think about losing my mom and I think I could understand her downward spiral. To decide to go on a three month, thousand mile hike by herself is not only crazy to me but unbelievably brave. To do something like that when you are not really prepared to so is even more crazy and brave. I laughed through her struggles with “monster” aka her pack. I was anxious for her when the reservoir was out of water and she hadn’t brought enough. With every new person she met, I was just as nervous about meeting as she was but most were nice and helpful. As a woman alone, meeting strangers, particular men can be dangerous but the danger was mostly from the trail itself and Cheryl’s own mistakes not from people she met. I enjoyed reading her journey and could see as the hike went on how much she grew. By the time it ended, I knew she would be ok. Not just because I know that Cheryl has had a successful writing career but because through her hike, she was able to see truths about herself, admit the ugly truths and accept things about herself that are unpleasant but all of that, everything that happened, led her to that moment and made her who she is today. Maybe we all should take a break from our lives and go wild.