Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Author: Marie Kondo
Published: 2014
Length: 213 pages
Source: Overdrive e-book

Personal Enjoyment Factor:  3.5/5

"Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle."

"If sweatpants are your everyday attire, you’ll end up looking like you belong in them, which is not very attractive. What you wear in the house does impact your self-image."

But what if my sweatpants speak to my heart??

This little book truly changed my life! I will never again go into my closet without thinking that my blouses have spirits and my socks are having a party in the drawer--at least as long as I've folded them right. Add to that the traumatic realization that these quasi-sentient articles of clothing have all seen me naked!! I am riddled with new-found guilt because I have neglected for years to thank my purse each day for a job well done. I feel like  a failure because I still hang on to that toilet brush that does not "spark joy."  

But seriously, I appreciate the overall message that Kondo is trying to convey: get rid of the clutter in our lives and only hang on to those items that bring us joy so that we can lead our best lives.Cleaning out definitely resets my mood, and most importantly, it keeps me from buying more useless crap. But I will not get rid of any of my books. I will continue to wear dumpy clothes around the house if I want to.  There are mementos that I just don't want to get rid of, even if they have already served their purposes. And I just can't quite get myself to talk to my possessions, whether it be a "thank you" or a "goodbye." (Sometimes I call them "stupid," but don't tell Marie that.)

Overall, I admit I found the book inspirational--I cleaned out some closets and my boxes of memories with gusto after reading it. But I also laughed so hard I cried in certain sections, which I hope doesn't indicate some sort of cultural insensitivity on my part. I've internalized the lessons I learned from it--many of them pop into my brain as I'm currently helping my husband clean out the garage. I don't go so far as to ask him "Does it spark joy?" Just reasoning, sometimes pleading with him to get rid of so many things that we don't need anymore. It will truly take magic to get it done.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

Author: David E. Hoffman
Published: 2009
Length: 592 pages
Source: Local library
Award: Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (2010)

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4.5/5

     Reagan escorted his guest [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko] down the long colonnade from the West Wing to the main White House mansion for a reception...A small chamber orchestra played classical music. Reagan introduced Nancy.  At the end of the reception, Gromyko took Nancy aside and said, "Does your husband believe in peace?"
     "Of course," she replied.
     "Then whisper 'peace' in your husbands ear every night," he said.
     "I will, and I will also whisper it in your ear," she said. And with that she leaned over with a smile and whispered softly, "Peace."

If only simple whispers of peace in the ears of Soviet and American leaders could have prevented the misguided suspicions and nuclear arms buildup that characterized the Cold War. In The Dead Hand, David E Hoffman offers a new understanding of both sides of the conflict, aided by his access to internal documents of the Soviet Defense Department, as well as memoirs, diaries and interviews. These sources provide an inside view of the attitudes and reactions of the Soviet leadership in the last years of the Cold War. What were Soviet leaders thinking? What did they say to each other behind closed doors? Interwoven with a detailed account of Reagan's horror at the prospect of nuclear war and his reasoning behind "Star Wars," the capture of both perspectives gives the sense of listening in on an intense conversation--a dysfunctional one, but it keeps the pages turning. 

Hoffman includes a terrifying history of the Soviet Union's covert biological weapons program. Brilliant scientists, afraid to refuse assignments from the government or convinced that they needed to counter an alleged secret U.S. program, worked feverishly to genetically engineer pathogens that could wipe out huge populations--smallpox, plague, tularemia, anthrax. The program was so secretive that it is questionable whether Gorbachev knew of it. In contrast, United States stopped research and development of biological weapons in 1969, reasoning that nuclear weapons were a sufficient deterrent. As Nixon said, "If someone uses germs on us, we'll nuke 'em." 

Nixon's statement is a good example of militant rhetoric on both sides that camouflaged the extreme abhorrence with which leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev viewed the possible use of their massive and costly stashes of nuclear weapons.  Each side was convinced that the other side was ready to push the button, and they had to be prepared. The "Dead Hand" refers to the Soviet plans to create a Doomsday machine that would launch a retaliatory strike if their leadership was wiped out by an initial U.S. strike. This horrifying scenario of a nuclear weapon launch free of human decision was never actually operative. Instead, they developed a semi-automatic system called Perimeter.  As for the U.S., Reagan's vision of the Strategic Defense Initiative was never realized, but it showed his concern that an attack from the "Evil Empire" was possible at any time, and we desperately  needed a way to defend ourselves from a fate imagined in "The Day After."  In reality, both sides hoped to avoid WWIII, but the realization of this unfolded at a slow, painful, and costly pace.

I was born in 1973, so I lived through the last chapter of Cold War hostilities. I was blissfully unaware of the frightening possibilities. I saw headlines here and there, and I remember when "The Day After" was televised, but it never really sunk in. I was happy watching MTV and spraying my hair with copious amounts of Sun-In. I would have never imagined that the Soviets were cooking up ways to kill me and my family with smallpox or the plague.  As terrifying as their biological weapons program  was, the real horror is the present danger triggered by the breakup of the Soviet Union and the "leftovers" of the Cold War. The highly enriched uranium and plutonium that sit unguarded in warehouses. The engineers and scientists ready to sell their knowledge and/or weapons to the highest bidder just so they can feed their families. Who will end up with these weapons and the knowledge to develop and manufacture more?  Now that MTV sucks and my hair is gray, I'm a little more aware of what's going on in the world. As frightening as the idea of the Dead Hand was, the legacy of the Cold War is the bigger nightmare.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter

Author: Colin Dexter
Originally published: 1975
Length: 282 pages
Source: Local libaray

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3.5/5

"And please let it not be forgotten that I am Morse of the Detective as Dickens would have said.  Oh yes, a detective. A detective has a sensibility towards crime-- he feels it; he must feel it before he can detect it." 

With the last season of Inspector Lewis airing on PBS this month, I was possessed by the binge-watching demons and decided I needed to re-watch all the previous episodes before the grand finale. I have the very last episode on deck, and I must make the viewing of it an Event. I will miss the Lewis-Hathaway duo, but am looking forward to Season 3 of Endeavour, and also going back in time by watching the original Inspector Morse episodes. I've only seen one or two, and as a bookish sort of person with too much time on her hands, of course I decided I needed to read the books that inspired the show and the spin-offs first.

Honestly, if I didn't have this great love of the television series to buoy me, I probably would have been rather ho-hum about Last Bus to Woodstock. Inspector Morse (no Christian name given) teams with Robert Lewis to solve the murder of the young blonde Sylvia Kaye, who also appears to have been raped. Morse almost haphazardly explores one theory and then another as Lewis observes in bewilderment: 
Morse jabbered on, his mouth stuffed with fish and chips, and with genuine concern Lewis began to doubt the Inspector's sanity...Or had Morse been drinking? 
Insane, drunk, or just in agony after injuring his foot falling off a ladder? Or maybe that's just Morse. The unveiling of his character entertains more than the solving of the mystery (as is the case with most of the mystery books I love).  He can be abrasively candid one moment, hopelessly in love the next, and finds an appropriate bit of poetry to apply in both instances.  Although he appears overly confident, he doubts himself miserably when he's alone.  But a hot shower and a shave can pull him out of his doldrums instantly. His love of Wagner is only briefly touched upon in this first installment, but I could still hear opera in my mind as I read. I liked Morse, but sometimes I felt like I was watching a train wreck. And that made me love him.

I didn't find the mystery itself very remarkable.  A lot of information is withheld from the reader until the end. The assumptions about rape are antiquated and offensive. Red herring characters having affairs and pornography addictions are not particularly intriguing. I would have loved more of a connection to Oxford and more literary allusions that tied into the crime, a la Lewis. But maybe you have to have a Hathaway for that to work.  Or maybe that's to come in subsequent novels.  Which I am planning to read still. Twelve more to go.

Overall, this was a quick and light read, and a modest beginning to all things Morse, Lewis, Hathaway, and the prequellian Endeavour.

Random note:  I just realized while I was writing this post why I've had "The Last Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees stuck in my head this last week.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Classics Club Spin Update: Germinal

I've been away from all things blogging for a couple of months, but I really wanted to make sure I read my Classics Club Spin pick Germinal by Emile Zola. I didn't quite make yesterday's deadline, but I'm making progress:

I'm on page 362/532.  At this point in the book, the miners on strike are terrorizing the bourgeois declaring "We want bread!" M. Hennebeau, manager of the Montsou mine, has a cheating wife and an unhappy life.  When the strikers come around he's angry with them because he would "gladly have swapped his fat salary just to have their thick skin and their unproblematic sex." I guess the grass is always greener on the other side!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Out of My Mind

Author: Sharon M. Draper
Published: 2010
Length: 295 pages
Source: Local library

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 3/5

Thoughts need words.  Words need a voice.
I love the smell of my mother's hair after she washes it.
I love the feel of the scratchy stubble on my father's face before he saves.
But I've never been able to tell them. 

In many ways, Melody is a typical 11-year-old girl. She enjoys music, watches television, loves her family, and yearns for a good friend. One thing that sets her apart from her peers is her high intelligence and a photographic memory. She is also extraordinary in another way--she has cerebral palsy and lacks the ability to walk or talk. No one knows that her favorite song is "Elvira" by the Oakridge Boys and that she sees colors when she listens to Mozart. Her intelligence is not even considered a possibility by her doctors, teachers, and fellow students. Her thoughts and words are trapped in her mind, desperate to be released and to reveal her personality and talents. Melody's life changes when she switches from a communication board to an electronic communication device a la Stephen Hawking. With an effective way to speak and a place on the Whiz Kids Quiz Team, it seems probable that things are going to look up for Melody.

Unfortunately, Melody goes to what must be the worst elementary school in the history of ever. Snotty fifth graders and insensitive teachers are the norm rather than the exception at Spaulding Street Elementary School. When they practice questions for the Quiz Team, Melody is accused of cheating by the other kids and the teacher actually says that because Melody got them all right then the questions must not be hard enough! They say and do more heartless things as the story unfolds. Luckily, Melody has enough strength and spirit to rise above the ugliness.

I love that Draper's novel gave me a perspective into what might go on inside the mind of someone with cerebral palsy. I would recommend it as a great read-aloud selection for middle grades, whether at home or school, to teach empathy towards individuals with special needs.  However, the important message of the book did not make me wholeheartedly love the story in which it was set.  The drama relied on the over-the-top meanness of the characters, lending to a contrived feel and, in my case, book-throwing. Maybe Draper was trying to increase the appeal among young readers by including the kind of dramatic yet unbelievable situations you might see in a Disney Channel show. Perhaps she felt this was a better vehicle for teaching compassion to kids? I only know that I don't regret reading it, I just wish I could have loved the whole shebang. 

And because I used to love this song when I was little, just like Melody does, here's video of "Elvira", one of the funnest songs to sing along to.  "Giddy up oom poppa oom poppa mow mow" :)

Monday, March 28, 2016

3 Reasons Why I'm 13 Reviews Behind

My goal this year is to review every book I read.  I'm not giving up that goal, but I'm going to have to spend some time catching up. I've got 13 books that I have finished but have not reviewed yet. Oops! My excuse is that I've been busy with a few other things:

1. Fitness/Guest Room

It started out something like this:

And ended up like this:

It's all set for me to work out. I can read, go on my laptop, watch movies, or listen to music while I'm on the treadmill.  I also have some old workout DVDs and can do workouts online. The bed we got from IKEA can be pulled out to fit two twin mattresses so we're all set for guests to visit, or it can be used to sit on like a couch.  I like to call it my "Chick Cave" but really anyone can go in there.

2. Food storage closet

I wish I had taken a true "before" picture with everything stuffed in our under-the-stairs closet, but I only thought to take a picture after emptying it and taking the carpet out.  Here are a few photos taken along the way.

This is for long-term food storage--food to have on hand in case of emergency or challenging financial circumstances. We mostly have grains, beans, and freeze-dried fruits and vegetables from Thrive Life. I also threw in some other emergency supplies and will add more a little bit at a time.

3. And last but certainly not least, we got a puppy! Meet Radar, our 14-week-old Miniature Schnauzer:

He's pretty good so far, and loves being held.  He has discovered the awesomeness of shoes which we are trying to discourage and he's a little bit clumsy.  I clean up a lot of accidents in the house!  Ironically, I don't think my floors have ever been so clean.

I've been listening to a lot of audio books while working on the house projects, but since we got Radar most of my time is spent house training him and enjoying his cuteness.  I'm hoping to get back into the reviewing routine next week. I've read/listened to some amazing books.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Classics Club Spin #12

I forgot about Classics Club Spins!  Apparently I've missed about ten of them while I've been away.  Here are the details for how it works and my list:
  • Go to your blog. 
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.) 
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday. 
  • Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce. 
  • The challenge is to read that book by May 2, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (No fair not listing any scary ones!) 

Five I'm hesitant to read/ am not sure if I will like:
1. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
2. The Europeans by Henry James
3. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
4. The Ambassadors by Henry James
5. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Five I can't wait to read:
6. Possession by A.S. Byatt
7. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
8. Germinal by Emile Zola ***Winner***
9. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
10. One of Ours by Willa Cather

Hefty books:
11. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
12. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
13. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek
14. Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
15. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Random picks:
16. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
17. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
18. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
19. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
20. The Reef by Edith Wharton