Eclectic

booksI almost entitled this post “Duds and Studs” because I’ve read some books that I thought were duds and then I read my first Nicholas Sparks book, about a stud of course (I’ve seen enough movies to know the genre). But then I kept adding more books to this post that didn’t fit into either category.  So, here’s a list of eclectic books that I’ve read in the past month or so.

I’ll start with Nicholas’ stud.

The Longest Ride (Sparks) – This is my first Sparks’ novel.  I read and enjoyed Six Weeks with My Brother, Sparks’ touching personal memoir, many years ago, but that’s it.  The Longest Ride alternates between the story of an older man who is trapped in a car after swerving off an icy road and reminiscing about his past true love, and a budding romance between a sorority girl and a bull-riding, testosterone-laden rancher (the stud).

As I read, I wondered how the stories would end up intertwining.  It seemed obvious that the older man had money and the rancher was in desperate need of money and that’s probably how the two stories would intersect.  About fifty pages before the stories merged, I realized that I had heard this plot line before.  Probably, it’s because Sparks’ stories are famous.  But I think it might have even been a sermon illustration!  It’s a great story.

The ending could have been groan-worthy but it worked. It was actually a great ending.  I haven’t ever tried romance-writing, but I’m sure it’s hard to do without devolving into cheesiness.  So, bravo to Sparks.

Then two duds …

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There (Potts) – I really enjoyed Potts’ other book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.  I was looking forward to reading about his travelling adventures and short stories he had published.  This book was disappointing.  It just wasn’t that interesting to me. It came across as egotistical and immature.  The book opens with Potts trying to sneak onto a movie set.  It makes for an interesting plot to some extent, but also seemed ultimately like a stupid thing to do.  There’s a lot of other antics in the book that came across as juvenile as well.

Catch-22 (Heller) – I think I’m just not into this genre: slow-moving novels about soldiers who philosophize about life.  Some sections were interesting and I enjoyed the writing to some extent, but the subject matter and slowness of this book assured that it won’t be my favorite.  It reminded me to some degree of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read earlier this year.  That’s enough hyphenated books about soldiers for me, for a while.

And then some more random books …

We Were Liars (Lockhart) – I saw this novel was “trending” on Goodreads and picked it up.  Yes, I fell for that!!  Anyway, the opening pages of this book whisked me away into another world. I really enjoyed the writing. It’s easy and fun but also rich and evocative.  The kids in the story are spoiled, rich brats. So that was annoying. The teenage love-story angst was hard to bear at times, too.  But overall this book was a fun, quick read.  There is a big plot twist at the end that I didn’t see coming and, to some degree, doesn’t make sense. If you have read this book, I’d love to know what you think.

The Outermost House (Beston) – I grew up near the ocean and I love stories set by the seaside that involve observations of the surrounding nature, and personal discovery. This book had some beautiful observations, but I vacillated between enjoying the descriptions and feeling they were too factual.  Like and engineer was making lists, or something.  Sorry if you’re an engineer!  I think you’re probably great.  Just saying …

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (LaMott) – Ann LaMott is a great writer. This memoir wasn’t my favorite but she definitely has a knack for describing scenes and emotional situations.  This book is about the turmoil of the first year of her grandson’s life, with her young son dealing with unexpected fatherhood and Ann trying to hold everything together.

Food: A Love Story (Gaffigan) – I really loved reading Dad is Fat by Gaffigan last year.  In fact, because it’s so humorous and because the logistics of having five kids and living in a two-bedroom, four-story walkup in New York City is so intriguing to me, it might have been one of my most-recommended books last year.  So I was happy to pick up Food: A Love Story and add something funny to my reading material.  Gaffigan makes fun of regional food, health food, and mostly himself.  I enjoyed this reading diversion.

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Happiness at Home

IMG_8297 (1)In the opening passages of Happier at Home, author Gretchin Rubin indicates that she doesn’t need to go to Paris for a year to find happiness.  [This made me laugh since I’ve been reading about people who have gone to Paris for a year on a self-discovery trip.]  Rather, home can be that rich, rewarding place that we carry with us wherever we go.  If we invest in our home life, we are happier people.

When I look back at pictures of the kids, my favorite ones are not the ones where we are on some faraway trip.  My favorites are the ones where the kids are in their PJs, standing side by side.  Or when they are holding critters they dug up in the yard, their faces full of glee.  Or when they are dressed up in ridiculous costumes they put together in the basement, but are having the time of their life.  These are average, everyday photos. They trigger many other memories of similar times.  They are happy memories I carry with me, because of a happy home life.  Rubin’s book was a great reminder to continue developing happiness at home.   

Rubin delves into various facets of home life, particularly dealing with possessions and relationships.  She challenges the assumption that less is always better.  For certain people, having the least amount possible isn’t always the road to happiness and she backs this up with research.  Since minimalism is so “in” right now, I thought this was interesting to think about.

She explored ways to be positive and encourage your spouse and ways to connect and spend more quality time with your children.  I liked the fun after-school activities and experiences that Rubin was able to make time for, with her daughter.  Sometimes if you don’t put it on the calendar, it will never happen!  So true.

She addressed the issue of negative people.  Sometimes you can’t avoid them but she suggests some ways to insulate yourself from being drawn down by their negativity.

Happiness is contagious but negativity is even more contagious.  

I have been thinking about this a lot and have been trying to make better effort to develop friendships with people who are positive and lift me up, and to distance myself from people who are negative and pull me down.  When I am with happy people, I am happier.  Life is hard enough without having to deal with drama and negativity.  Life is too short for that.

This book made me think about what makes me feel good/hopeful/happy and what makes me feel bad/discouraged.  The author posits that, to be happier, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in a spirit of growth.

So, for a few short weeks, I decided to keep track of some things that make me feel happy and some things that make me feel discouraged, just to get an idea.  Whenever either of those feelings crept in, I took time to jot down some notes.  

Some of it was unsurprising and other things were eye opening. Like, being outside really makes me happy, apparently!

I will start with the negative things, so I can end on a positive note.  Thankfully there are a lot less on that list.

 

Anti-happiness—things that suck away my joy

– Dawdling children.  Especially when homework drags on, and on, and on …

– When I feel like I didn’t get “anything” done that day.  Some days, with little kids, it’s just about surviving, and keeping my head above water.  Those days are hard.

– Whiny children.

– People with negative/depressed attitudes.

 

Things that infused me with happiness

– Tea drank slowly in a quiet house, with a loyal, longtime friend.  I think the happiness was due partly to the friend and partly to the luxury of a quiet house.

– A child with a sense of humor and larger-than-life view of the world, telling me about her day at school.

– Bright spring green colors, with a backdrop of dark storm clouds—such great contrast!—and a brisk walk among all that glorious nature, with Kevin.  13 years together, and I still enjoy his conversation the best.

– A hug and a smile from a toddler who really loves me.

– Riding bikes to Kite Day and lying in the grass to watch the colorful, soaring kites, bright blue sky, and white puffy clouds.  Soaking up the sunshine and not being in a hurry to go anyplace or do anything.

– Being outside in nature, with the sun shining.

– Watching Carson overcome his fear at the park and finally go down the tallest slide.

– Discovering baby ducklings at a nearby wetlands, with the kids. We watched them for a long time.

– Selecting colorful, sweet-smelling doughnuts from a brightly lit bakery case, for the slumber-party-girls at home.  A multi-sensory experience and celebration after the last day of school!  Plus, getting to shop sans kids is a treat, by itself!

– A house concert with some loud, off-key singing and mosquitoes. But, yes, I was happy because it was funny and we laughed.  A lot.  And the kids were so cute clapping to the music and enjoying themselves and the people there were great.

– Being with two particular girlfriends who always make me smile and reach out to me, and other people around them.  (Positive people!)  I need to get together with these gals more often.

– Watching the kids run wild in the common area behind our house, teasing and chasing each other, with big smiles plastered on their faces.  Often the neighbors join them out there.  Now that our toddler is older, the four kids are like one cohesive pack.

– Our neighborhood pool, because it’s so peaceful there and I’m an extravert so there’s always someone to talk to.  I love the lazy hours that we spend there.  Summer is here!

 

Rubin addresses the issue of whether the pursuit of happiness is selfish. When a person is happy, those around them are happier.  Happy people contribute more to their families and to society.  So, the pursuit of happiness benefits others, aside from the individual pursing happiness.  I think the whole topic of the pursuit of happiness is interesting.  I have enjoyed Rubin’s books, stories, and happiness research.

France for a Year

aa-franceAlthough I’m not a Francophile, I remembered reading Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris a few years ago and being sad to come to the last page.  One book leads to another.  And another … I recently finished three more books about people who moved to France for a year and chronicled their journeys.

French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too): How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banished Snacking and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Healthy, Happy Eaters is a book by Canadian author Karen Le Billon who decided to move to France for a year with her young family, to the village where her husband grew up.

It became apparent, rather quickly, that the Le Billon children were very unlike the French children when it came to eating habits.

Here are some things I noted while reading this book:

– The French do not reward kids with food and do not let kids play with food.

-The French do not snack.  [What about all those cafés with bulging chocolate croissants in the windows?  Those are for foreigners. If you see a native in those places, they are likely having a small espresso only.] 

-The French eat their fill at meals and eat four meals a day (breakfast, lunch, gouter—a mini-meal in the late afternoon/after school, and a late dinner).

-Tables are dressed up for the most important occasion of the day and the French eat only when seated at a table.  [I have tried to eat only when sitting down and this is VERY hard for me, since I am often on the go!]

-Kids are expected to try a variety of food at every meal until they learn to appreciate it.  At school, lunch is considered an important part of the pupils’ education.  School lunches help to teach French food culture. In France, gourmet food is not the exclusive domain of the rich. It is appreciated by all classes within society.

-The French would never think to eat alone.  Mealtimes are about eating good food and sharing community.

Le Billon was initially defensive about her daughters being forced to eat certain types of “mature” foods and being denied snacks.  She thought that the school was being really strict and worried when her young daughters reacted and became upset. In the end, she decided to heighten her expectations of her children and adopt more French food philosophy because she saw the results: French kids really do eat everything, they are not obese, and they enjoy their food and food culture.

Le Billon had a lot of practical suggestions.  I took two things away from this book, that has impacted my family positively:

1) I started weaning my kids off frequent snacking and we have tried to avoid snacking on empty calories.  I really like the idea of having four mini-meals rather than snacking several times between meals.  I have become more mindful of the clock when my kids ask about snacks. I have trained them that 4 o’clock is the cut-off time for asking for something to eat before dinner.  They may have a healthy snack at 4 p.m. (usually something with protein like cheese, nuts, or peanut butter with apple slices) and that’s it until dinner.  When the kids are hungry prior to a meal, I try to speak positively about the yummy meal that is coming and try to distract them with things other than food.

2) I’ve started working harder to help my kids eat more variety.  This is easier said than done, but I have found some tricks that have worked.  As Le Billon indicates in her book, it’s important to offer a variety of foods. I have started keeping at least four different kinds of veggies cut up and ready to go in my fridge.  I have been setting these out on the table prior to lunch.  I have one child who would previously only eat carrot sticks but has now branched out to cucumbers and sometimes other veggies.  I tell my kids that they have to eat at least four pieces of vegetables and at least two varieties.  The kids also know they have to try at least one bite of everything on the table.  One line in the book is to tell kids: “You don’t like it yet because you have not tried it enough times to like it. Don’t worry you will like it someday.”  I try to say positive things about different kids of foods and to lead by example.

I’m glad I read this book and recommend it.  French Kids Eat Everything was definitely good food for thought!

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C’Est la Vie: An American Woman Begins a New Life in Paris and—Voila!—Becomes Almost French! is about the nuts and bolts of moving to Paris and about the author’s attempts to reinvent herself and find happiness again after tragedy and a major life change.  This was a delightful book for the first hundred pages or so.  The American author, Susie Gershman, had traveled to Paris on business numerous times.  When her husband died and she was still in her fifties, she decided to uproot herself and move to Paris, a city that had always enamored her.

I liked the author’s gusto and sense of humor. I also enjoyed the details about what it was actually like to put skin and bones on her dreams.  She talked frankly about the nitty-gritty of moving to Paris.  First, there was the matter of trying to get a lease on an apartment.  Gershman had a lot of connections and spoke some basic, conversational French.  She nonetheless had an uphill battle trying to relocate and integrate.  Getting a lease was just the beginning.  There were many other cultural hurdles to jump and practical things to learn along the way.

As I mentioned above, the book gradually stopped being delightful.  I got tired of the author bragging and seeming to not realize she was doing it.  She indicated numerous times that she had many friends who were rich, famous, and important.  These were the kinds of people who could get reservations at the best restaurants at a moment’s notice.  It was kind of like name dropping without actually using names. Although, a handful of times, she did use actual names.

The final straw was her giddy affair with a married French man.  Of course we are told many times in the book that he is a Count.  She was so impressed by this title that she apparently didn’t care that he was 20 years her senior and married.  What mattered most was that he could take her to nice parties where she could hobnob with the upper crust.  It just seemed very shallow and was highly unattractive, especially for someone in her fifties.

I understand that Gershman wanted to be happy again but was put off by the fact that she felt she needed a married boyfriend to take her there. Originally I admired Gershman because she was independent and strong. It takes a lot of guts to try to carve out a new life, especially all alone.  But then she quickly became dependent and silly.  It left a bad taste in my mouth … not something I would expect from a French book!

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Paris in Love is about romance writer, Eloisa James, and her family moving to Paris after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully treated. She sold her home in the suburbs, she and her husband took sabbaticals from their professorial jobs, and she decided life was too short to not try Paris for a year.

The book is written in little vignettes.  James has a perky personality and writes with humor about how they settled into Paris, acclimated to a new culture, and tried to parent two adolescent children along the way.

I thought Paris in Love was cute and funny.  It’s a whimsical, fun, quick read.

It was a treat to read these books and live vicariously in France for a time!