Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
By Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs

Near the end of African American history month, February, I took a look around my library and found many posters of great African Americans. The library did a great job and it inspired me to read a few books about the African American experience. At that time, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the narrative turned movie 12 Years a Slave. I decided it was time to finally read Frederick Douglass's narrative. While there was a second narrative in all the copies at the library, I didn't start the book expecting to read Harriet Jacobs's story. Yet, both of these narratives were so compelling, so shocking, that I knew I had to finish both.

It was very clear very early in the book that this would be one of the most important historical books I'd ever read. Slavery has so many tragic and horrifying layers, but I think that sometimes the broad view of this period loses some of the mundane details of a slave's life - things we take for granted. As a slave, there was a chance your mother never really knew if you survived beyond a year old because of the systematic separation of slave families. Children born into slavery wouldn't know when their birth dates actually were. Most of the time they only had a ballpark number.

In the past, I've touched on how grateful I am to be able to read. These two narratives really reinvigorated that gratitude. Not only were all odds against these two people learning how to read and write, but their writing came to be spectacular. It just comes to show how great writing survives through the decades for us to learn from.

In Douglass's narrative, something reminded me of that Duck Dynasty creep, who said that when he was a kid, black people in the South were happy and singing all the time. Slaves didn't sing because they were happy, Douglass said. Oftentimes slave owners mistook their singing for joy and would spread propaganda that slaves LOVED slavery. Douglas wrote, "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience."

There were two other quotes in the Douglass narrative that really spoke to me:

"I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence." (42)

"The silver trumpet of freedom had aroused my soul to the eternal wakefulness." (50)

Also learned that a dearborn was a vehicle, a kind of light four-wheeled wagon used in country district parts of the United States. Who knew? Not I. 

I didn't take any notes on the Jacobs because I hadn't expected to read it. Yet once I did, I read it quickly and in pretty big chunks. My reading slowed a bit toward the end, but I powered through it. The struggle for freedom and equality is one with incredible people woven into it. These are both very important narratives. All Americans should read this part of our country's history. It wasn't that long ago. 


Book Review: Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Rich Dad Poor Dad
by Robert T. Kiyosaki

My friend bought this book for me and has been begging me to read it so we can talk about it. I finally picked it up and found it to read very quickly and I was done in two sittings. It can definitely be done in one. 

This book has been on my radar a long time because of my working at the library. Kiyosaki's book is very accessible, which I'm sure is a large reason why the book appears on high school summer reading lists. My opinion on this book is very mixed. I think in the end I liked it, but had some general discontents.

  • Reads like a sales book, but that's to be expected.
  • Sort of reminded me of The 4-hour Workweek, which I really didn't like and lost interest within a chapter or two. It sort of has that "Get Rich Quick" feel. I hate that crap.
  • Poorly written. The quality is that of Twilight. OK, maybe not that bad, but Kiyosaki admits in the book that he is no writing wiz. It gets repetitive, too, which is probably why it reads so quick.
  • Kiyosaki really, really simplifies getting rich. I mean, he makes it sound like any old hobo off the street can get a book about investing and grow their asset column. Yet, I'm probably the cynic that he talks about in the book. 
Which brings me to why I think in the end I liked Rich Dad Poor Dad. Throughout the whole book, he clearly talks about the differences in mindset, attitude and decision-making between rich and poor. He always talks about education, constant learning and financial literacy. The book stays vague enough so he can write more books and get more rich. Yet, I think Kiyosaki really loves making money and I appreciate how honest he is. His tone seems genuine. In the end, I was reminded of old lessons and got some inspiration to learn more about the science of money, as he puts it.

Because it was a fast read, I only jotted down two passages from the book. Their simplicity, message and style are a good representation of the book. 

"Before I finally learned to ride a bike, I first fell down many times. I've never met a golfer who has never lost a golf ball. I've never met people who have fallen in love who have never had there heartbroken. And I've never met someone rich has never lost money." p. 133
"I'm always shocked at people who buy stocks or real estate, but never invest in their greatest asset, their mind." p. 153


New edition Malamud's 'The Natural' and the lessons still apply

Spring training has begun and baseball is in the air. This weekend was one of organizing my reading list and one of my tasks was to select at least one baseball book to enjoy. As I combed through my many lists, I found that a new edition of The Natural is coming out. This book, though quite dark, is a great, great baseball story. 

Here's the NPR story that talks about how the book is still relevant today.

Here my review from back when I read it.


Book Review: American Gods

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman

This turned out to be more of an obligatory read than an enjoyable one. Many people in Library Land love them some Neil Gaiman. Dang do they love him! As for myself, I'm not particularly impressed with my first taste. I might have picked the wrong book of his. Of course, I'd give Gaiman another shot, but for me this book was choppy, unspectacular and even boring sometimes. The end of the book was like the last 20 seconds of a tied college hoops game - an eternity. I don't mean to say I hated, because I didn't, but it was just not my cup of tea. That's my two cents as it appears on the internet.

I realize I was probably not quite smart enough for this book. Most of the folklore behind the characters were foreign to me, except a couple. There were too many characters and the main ones were dull. The Egyptians in the funeral parlor were my favorite, though. I learned a lot and looked a lot of stuff up, because that's how I roll. In the end, I didn't think they wove into a cool plot.

The book jumped around and didn't engage me, but rather pacified me. Maybe even distracted me. I'm not super sweet with metaphors and a couple reviews on Goodreads made it seem like if you didn't like it, you just didn't "get it" and see it on some significant philosophical level. Listen, reading Nietzsche in college made me realize that I don't want to feel like reading someone's work is a trick and you're ALWAYS supposed to be reading it some secret way. That is some bullshit. Sometimes I just want a good story without intellectual baggage.

Something that struck me immediately about this book was how much it reminded me of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which I did not finish. I continued reading American Gods because the build up was intriguing and the story was one that I was not used to reading. Unfortunately, much like the Dark Tower series, the great build up ended as "meh, some other stuff happened until the book ended." I think that's why I don't go for the dark, paranormal, horror stuff too often. It seems like too much unimaginative, nightmarish streams of consciousness that end in ways that don't speak to me. I think that's a little too harsh to apply to American Gods, but I do hope my next Gaiman read is a bit better than this one.


Dealing with death in the last months of my twenties

The following was written by me on April 1, 2012, but I never got to publishing it. For me, 2012 was one of the worst ever. My family experienced some pretty serious deaths by that point - my grandmother at the beginning of the year and then my wonderful niece just two weeks after her third birthday. 

As I went through my some writing drafts on the first of this new year, I found this piece of writing and it inspired me. I'm so happy that I took down my feelings and my thoughts after a number of pretty awful events, because even though I didn't feel I was thinking clearly then, I wrote a few things that were quite clear. I'm so glad that I made a plan on how to focus my sadness. I didn't accomplish everything below, but that's the beauty of writing it down. I can rediscover it and continue on a path to being better.

April 1, 2012 
Dealing with death is not exactly how I expected to spend the last months of my twenties. Two of the most amazing people I've ever known I've lost this year, my Babcia Wanda and my little niece Audrey. I don't think I can get much on the page right now that makes too much sense, but I do want to get something down.

First, the deaths of Babcia and Audrey have made me want to live life to the very fullest, whether I have a week to live or another five decades. And it has made me so much more keenly aware that my time to spend with other people maybe shortened because they're time is limited on earth. So what if I live to be a 100 and don't have great experiences with every person I can? It is not that I haven't given it my all in the past, but I haven't been a positive force on those around me. Negativity has had a way of controlling me in the past and I want to live better each day.

I want to write more. I want to write about my family more and about my husband. I want to write about libraries and in support of them. I want to respond to foolishness with the written word. I want to write poetry. I want to write foolishness and make people laugh. 
I want to read, because the only way to get better at writing is to read it first. I really want to make the hour of 10-11pm my reading hour. I want to turn off all the screen in my life and read. I want to read so I can write. I want to volunteer to read books to children and help illiterate adults learn to read.

I want to serve. It is important to enjoy and take care of myself, but I have been fortunate and I need to give back in many ways. I'm still feeling out how to do this, but Audrey's passing has given me focus on pediatrics and children.


Life rule for beers and books

I just created a new list on my Goodreads account called "incomplete." There's a motto I live by that may not be particularly novel, but I really can't attribute it to any one person in particular. The motto is that:
Life is too short to drink cheap beer or finish bad books.
This post is about the bad books. A buddy of mine just finished the Fountainhead. He insisted that he was doing it to find out why so many people were so enamored with Ayn Rand and her works. I tried to tell him there were easier ways to find that out than reading an 800-page manifesto disguised as a novel, but he did it anyway. I was impressed, but still thought to myself, "What a waste of precious reading time."

When I look back on it, I can't remember whether War and Peace or Heart of Darkness were the books that inspired my 50 page reading rule. That amuses me solely on the fact is that the first was VERY long and I got through 300 pages of a 1500-page volume. It helped my insomnia. Heart of Darkness, on the other hand, was a tiny work - 75 pages tops - but I decided to set it aside quickly.

People should strive to fill their life with meaning. I just feel that if you give a bad book more time than its worth you are taking meaning out of your own life. I am not saying you should agree with me on my book tastes. I'm saying you should be true to yours. Feel liberated when you decide to put a bad book down and try again. You get to the good ones faster!


Book Review: Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
By Thich Nhat Hahn

The word "mindful" may be a bit overused in this age of yoga, zen and all kinds of other hippie stuff, but I really don't think people take into consideration what it takes to be mindful. This book offers a lot of practical ways to practice mindfulness daily. While I realize this may seem a little cheesy to some, you have to take that first step and make an effort to live in the moment.

The way that Hahn instructs us repeatedly to live in the moment is by paying special attention to our breath. Sometimes he recommends to either in your head or aloud say "I breath in and breath out." Deep breaths slow you down, put more oxygen into your blood and give you a mechanism to begin a mini meditation. I have a short attention span, so breathing deeply has always been a way for me to simmer and slow down, even fall asleep.

Another thing that Hahn goes over in practicing mindfulness is by planting a seed of joy by smiling. It really does work. In fact, I sort of conquered my spouts of road rage by making it a point to smile when I was in gridlock. The crappy drivers were less annoying. The dangerous drivers required more caution and patience (and distance). Instead of swearing or scoffing, I smiled and melted the negativity away.

Finally, at the end of the book the section called "Love in Action," there are fourteen precepts of the Order of Interbeing. Yes, I think it sounds a little cult-like, but the points are quite good. Many are common sense, but good reminders. Some of my favorites:

  • Do not think that the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times. 
  • Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, and sound. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of the suffering of the world. 
  • Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them while they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as anger or hatred arises, turn your attention to your breathing in order to see and understand the nature of your anger or hatred and the nature of the persons who have caused your anger or hatred.
The book is short and a quick read. It's a bit repetitive, so I think sometimes it is easy to zone out. Yet, the content and lessons within are good. Mindfulness is something that we can all practice and work on and Hahn shows us how. This book has also been around for a long time (see image) and has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama, so this guy is legit.  


Book Review: Naked Statistics

Naked Statistics
By Charles Wheelan

The first weekend of the New Year, a bunch of dames and I get together for brunch. We talk, we eat and we have fun. We also set intentions. It's a great practice for the beginning of the year. Some ladies share. Some don't. Yet we all take that time to write down a plan or a thought for the new year. One of my intentions was to do the math.

It's time to discover my inner mathematician. So I read a book about statistics. My dad, my lifelong math tutor, would probably laugh his butt off. Yet, reading a narrative about mathematics actually kind of took the edge off. Who knew?

Naked Statistics brushed me up on some things I already knew about - standard deviations, standard errors and regression analysis. At one point in college, I MUST HAVE learned about the central limit theorem, but was happy to learn about it again. And the author pointed out a whole slew of mistakes that could be made with the improper use of statistics. Again, I'm pretty sure I learned this in undergrad, but this book gave me a great way to brush off the cobwebs.

Much of this might seem like elementary to some, but my interest in math came a bit late. Perhaps one of my favorite lessons from this book was one of the very simplest: the difference between accuracy and precision. Accuracy is being correct (or how close you got to correct). Precise is being just that: precise. You can be very precise and very wrong. For example, if I were to tell you that I was 4 years, 3 months and 21 days, 6 hours and counting old - I would be pretty precise, but totally inaccurate (though maybe not figuratively???)

Wheelan is a pretty swell writer. His humor is dorky. It's like dad-joke city throughout, but it's not annoying at all again is another way the book takes the edge of "the maths," as my friend and I jokingly call it. Be warned, there IS math. In fact, it gets a little thick at times, but it's worth slogging through. I think all the examples and explanations are worth wrapping your head around. Also, the last chapter is awesome! I really, really appreciate when an author, especially one of non-fiction, finishes strong. Nothing is worse than a lazy finish! Wheelan delivers on the final chapter. Really the last two are really great.

This book is great for folks that are made nervous by math. There are plenty of practical examples. When I start my super awesome personal library one day, this will be one to adorn the shelves.

I didn't take too many notes, because I really, really needed to focus and honestly, sometimes just to get through. Sometimes I'll tweet though. Here's the one from this book:
From "Naked Statistics" - Mark Twain said there were three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
If you're looking to beef up some math skills, check out these treasures:


Book Review: Birds of Lesser Paradise

Birds of a Lesser Paradise
by Megan Mayhew Bergman

This book of stories was another one of my superficial selections in which I used the "pick a book based on its cover" technique, though I think I might have discovered the book through a review from the Boston Globe. That's the nice thing about tracking my books using Pinterest - I know where the heck I uncovered these titles! My book picks based on covers don't usually work out, but this one did!

First, I didn't even realize this was a book of stories because I was captivated by the cool title and the cute owl. Once I started reading, I knew I liked the writing, the author's voice and the tightness of the stories. Each story had a female protagonist and almost all of them really spoke to me. The quandaries that each story highlighted were actually pretty mundane problems - daughters having mommy issues, spouses having disagreements about having a child - but Bergman knows how to spin a story and keep you hooked until you realize "Oh, right, I'm reading short stories and that one's done."

Bergman's characters are great, there is just enough dialogue and it's awesome and, my favorite part, EVERY story has a critter woven into it. I was reviewing the book club questions and one asked how the animals have an effect on each human in the stories. As I pondered that, I had to laugh at how much I enjoy animals in fiction. The mundane, when done right, is pretty incredible. Bergman does it right.

I'd say the only problem with the stories was sometimes I found that the main characters seemed similar and I had to use the animals to navigate my brain back to the fact it was a different story. It's sort of funny because while the human characters seem the same, the stories are all very different and interesting. I felt very satisfied with the range of experiences that this book took me on.

Nonetheless, Bergman is a skilled writer. This is her first book, but you can bet I will keep an eye out for this writer's new stuff.

On a personal note, I really enjoy having a mix of reading available. I usually like to read one work of fiction, one of non-fiction and then I like to keep a book of short stories or poems on hand. This mix doesn't overwhelm me and gives me an option when I need a change of pace. I can't believe I wasted so much of my reading time stuck on one book for so long!


Confessions of an old year: 2013

2013 was pretty swell. I began a good job, reconnected with tons of friends and I started writing, reading and cooking more. I have found that I am more reflective in my writing and I have been learning more about myself through the practice. In these reflections, however, I found that there are little bits of me that may appear, well, kind of embarrassing.

These are my confessions for a year gone by:
  1. Sometimes at rest, my face is a bitch face. I'm so sorry if my smug demeanor has ever offended you, but, well, that's my face. My thinking face is even worse - it's like bitch face meets angry brow. Whenever I'm writing I have the thinking face on and my husband always asks me at least once, "Is everything okay?" Yeah, babe, it's just my face. 
  2. Vanity sucks. I hate makeup and fashionable clothes, accessories, done up nails...except there's one problem: I'd like to be pretty and I've considered stepping up my own vanity game. I think this is me getting old. I hate the thought of talking about beauty, too, but it might have to happen in the new year. Egad. I blame Pinterest.
  3. Pope Francis rules. He's like a South American Pope John Paul II, who was also the man. I think these guys really exemplify the BEST religion has to offer. The Catholic Church really needs a dude like Pope Francis, who I already think is going to have the same dramatic effect on the world that Pope John Paul did. While I no longer practice Catholicism, if I did, I would super, duper proud to have Pope Francis as a leader. As a fellow human being, I'm super duper happy that Pope Francis is at the helm and leading by example. 
  4. The radio has been getting a lot of play in my car. I listen to pop now and played Christmas music since Thanksgiving. I've enjoyed using my Shazam to find new music, including new hip-hop, some Eurotrash and, yes, another confession...
  5. I like dub step. A friend was describing the sound of dub step while ridiculing it a while ago and I was like "Oh crap, I think I like that stuff."  And, alas, I do.
  6. Continuing with the pop music confessions... I think I like Miley Cyrus. I only really like "Can't Stop" - it's Miley's personality as a free, wild woman that I like more. While I understand that people have called her inappropriate, and some have even pegged some of her activities as racially insensitive, I don't actually feel that this young woman is spiteful or hateful. Is she naive? Perhaps, but then again, which of us was the pinnacle of wisdom and responsibility at age 21? We don't all get to be like Miley - doing whatever we want, whenever we please in as few articles of clothing as we dare...but she does. And she's doing it and apologizing for none of it. One of my mantras this year (and will remain for years to come) is "Stay true to yourself." Miley has done exactly that. And while I don't love her antics, with her silly tongue protruding from her face and her jiggly thighs flopping around all over the place, I love that she is herself and gives zero cares what people think. She's not hurting anyone, she's clearly having the time of her life and she's staying true to herself. I wouldn't invite her to dinner, but I'd give her a high five for sure.
  7. I'm still in the recovery stages of my long battle with workaholism. While I am MUCH better this year about working off the clock, I still slip. However, this last year I have ensured that my time is no longer monopolized by a job. I deeply care about my work and am a dedicated employee, but at the end of the day, the expectation is not to work 50-60 hours a week. I'm not a high powered attorney, a doctor on call or anything like that. The work will be there when it's time to work. This boundary has been a difficult one for me to draw, because I've always been so eager and willing to go the extra thousand miles. Yet when I think about the cost of my behavior, my precious personal time, I shudder at the thought of things that bring me joy that I neglect - riding my bike, cooking for my husband, reading a book, writing, visiting my parents and snuggling with their puppy. We all have very limited time on this planet. Much of it is spent sleeping, much of it working and then there's that finite bit that you get to LIVE with. I'm working on my addiction to work and so far I've really enjoyed the benefits of TRUE personal time.