Tag Archives: nonfiction

“The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project 1Title: The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
Author: Gretchen Rubin
ISBN: 9780061583261
Pages: 336
Release date: January 2010
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Memoir/self-help
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (nonfiction book club)
Rating: 4 out of 5

I am among the 44 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions. I tend to think of my goals in more seasonal terms: each spring, summer, fall, and winter I rethink areas of my life that could use improvement.

But Gretchen Rubin takes this idea much, much further. And her goal, although multifaceted, is simple: In one year, she wanted to find ways to make herself happier.

Rubin isn’t depressed; she’s not even particularly unhappy. But, she figures, she could always be happier. On a scale of 1 to 5, she ranks her happiness at 3.92.

But that’s the whole point of her happiness project, Rubin writes: “One of my goals for the happiness project was to prepare for adversity—to develop the self-discipline and the mental habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened.” She wants to prepare herself for moments of future crisis by learning what makes her happy now, when there is no tragedy consuming her.

So what qualifies Rubin to become a happiness expert? Nothing, really. “They say that people teach what they need to learn,” she writes. “By adopting the role of happiness teacher, if only for myself, I was trying to find the method to conquer my particular faults and limitations.” The book is a highly subjective journey of one woman’s attempt to change the way she views and experiences her life—much more of a memoir than a how-to.

That’s a good thing, because Rubin and I seem to be quite different people. Nagging, one of her greatest faults, is, thankfully, not one of my major flaws, but I have to make a much greater effort to be organized and on top of things than Rubin seems to be. She’s an extravert who glories in planning get-togethers and establishing family traditions; I prefer a good book over talking to strangers, and I don’t really understand traditions. Nevertheless, I learned quite a bit from her account.

It’s all too easy to make lofty resolutions—“I want to be a kinder, better person”—but in order to follow through, you have to develop ways to attain those goals. Perhaps because I’m a goal-oriented person, I found the more concrete examples of the ways Rubin attempted to add happiness to her life, such as reading and writing; singing every morning; and promoting her blog.

Clearing the clutter in my life—both mental and physical—proved a difficult but extremely rewarding task. I found myself taking frequent breaks from reading  the book to make a stack of books to lend to friends, tackle items from my to-do list, and schedule dentist and eye doctor appointments.

Rubin found that adding more activities that make you happy increases your level of overall happiness. But perhaps even more important is decreasing the number of things that make you unhappy—like tackling my nagging to-do list made me feel lighter and less stressed. Furthermore, an important component of happiness is a sense of growth. “[I]t isn’t goal attainment but the process of striving after goals—that is, growth—that brings happiness,” she points out.

I was most looking forward to the section on money; after all, the idea that money buys happiness is one of our most prevalent myths. Yet the book was most disappointing in this section. Rubin seems quite well off, and although she reflects on the relationship between poverty and unhappiness, she doesn’t linger long:

When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it’s not a problem, you don’t think much about it. Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness.

Most of the chapter after this reflection focuses on the personal expenditures she makes to try to boost happiness—shopping for clothes, office supplies, and the like. She makes one short note about a donation to the local library—where she spends dozens of hours a week working on her books—and that’s it.

I don’t expect her to give away all of her belongings and go live in the trash heaps of Mumbai. But as someone who seems to experience great financial security, Rubin lives in a different world than many of us, and it’s difficult to find many lessons in her experiences. I would have liked to see much more about the happiness lift that donating to charity or helping others in need can provide. Or perhaps a study in how living without money, or with less money, can change your perspective. Since money is so closely related to happiness, I was quite disappointed in this section.

Some of her mantras, such as “The days are long, but the years are short,” began to feel a bit stale from repetition. But I found many points that spoke to me, such as:

Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite drastic differences between our personalities and the paths Rubin takes to happiness. I recommend this book to anyone trying to establish new habits or focusing on self-improvement.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy The Happiness Project from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain

QuietTitle: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
ISBN: 9780307352156
Pages: 368
Release date: January 29, 2013
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Nonfiction/self-help
Format: E-book/paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

According to my family’s mythology, I was what you might call a high-reactive baby. The slightest disturbance would leave me wailing. I was picky about sound, about food, about the way fabric touched my skin. When I was a year or so old and still cried like it was my full-time job, my mom took me to the doctor and said, “There has to be something wrong with her.” My mother herself cried when she found out she was pregnant with the brother who arrived after me, and her best friend comforted her by saying, “Don’t worry. When God made Melody, he broke the mold.”

True stories! And you people wonder why I only got more sensitive.

According to Susan Cain, the way I process stimuli—touch, sound, smell, sight—has implications for my personality. I react strongly to the merest hint of shiny/flashy things, and therefore easily become overstimulated. That’s why I like loud concerts and parties, but only when I’m able to go outside whenever I need to chill out. I hate crowded rooms and certain foods and God help me if I should touch velvet. (Ughhhhh. I get the creeps just thinking about it.)

Because I respond so strongly to the smallest things, I find it easier to cope in places where I can limit my exposure to stimulants. Like a darkened room, all by myself, where I can plot my revenge.

That, Cain writes, is part of what makes me an introvert. So I’m perfectly normal! It’s science!

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race,” Cain writes.

And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. Our place on this continuum influences our choice of friends and mates, and how we make conversation, resolve differences, and show love. It affects the careers we choose and whether or not we succeed at them. It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

Yet, Cain points out, in the United States we have a predilection for the extrovert. “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable,” she explains. “Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

So who, exactly, is an introvert? It’s pretty simple, actually. An introvert recharges his batteries by being alone, whereas an extravert gets her energy by being around people. It doesn’t have anything to do with being shy or sensitive or energetic, although (as noted above) these qualities often go hand-in-hand. “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation,” Cain writes, “while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating.”

Cain sometimes muddies the waters by addressing all of introversion’s “cousins” under the same umbrella, and extraverts may feel a little left out or picked on. But overall, I found the book to be illuminating and helpful in analyzing my own social interactions.

“We like to believe that we live in a grand age of creative individualism,” Cain writes. “But the way we organize many of our most important institutions—our schools and our workplaces—tells a very different story.” Cain continues:

As adults, many of us work for organizations that insist we work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. To advance our careers, we’re expected to promote ourselves unabashedly.

Such activities are not only counterproductive to introverts’ spiritual health; they might potentially affect the way an employer views her introverted employee’s job performance. Beyond coming to a greater understanding of my behavior as a child, this book has truly changed the way I view my professional life. At times, I need to put away the shy self who wants to hide in a corner at a work event, and get out there with a smile and an icebreaker. Although Cain advocates for more social acceptance of introverts, she acknowledges the power of learning how to be an extrovert in some situations—work events, parties, speeches. The motivation for acquiring such traits, she explains, is passion:

According to Free Trait Theory, we are born and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion, for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects.’

If something matters to you, you will find a way to overcome the qualities of your personality that may be holding you back from reaching your goal(s). However, recognizing that this is a stretch—that you would rather be at home in your pajamas with a good book—is key to maintaining a healthy, balanced life. Don’t force yourself into being someone else just because extraversion is all the rage right now. Just put on the qualities you need when you need them like a jacket, and discard them when you’re back home.

Besides, as Cain points out, things are changing in the business world. The interwebz allow you to do all your work from the quiet of your home, and social media allows you to be a leader without having to shake a single hand.

One final thought:

We all write our stories as if we were novelists, … with beginnings, conflicts, turning points, and endings. And the way we characterize our past setbacks profoundly influences how satisfied we are with our current lives. …

Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, societies, and ultimately themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Quiet from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

“The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life” by Meghan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal

Misanthrope's GuideTitle: The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life (Go Away!)
Authors: Meghan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal
ISBN: 9781440525087
Pages: 197
Release date: September 2011
Publisher: Adams Media
Genre: Humor
Format: ARC
Source: Review copy
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Scratching your head over what to get for your favorite misanthrope this holiday season? At a loss over what to slip into your post-collegiate kids’ stockings? You can’t go wrong with The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life, a slim, humorous book by Meghan Rowland and Chris Turner-Neal.

Rowland and Turner-Neal took DC by storm with the inappropriately funny 2birds1blog, intended as a twenty-something’s guide to life. Rowland and Turner-Neal excel at hip, raunchy humor that often references pop culture, and they always situate their humor in their real experiences: graduating from school, getting fired from a job, wondering whether they will ever find a career that both matches their talents and keeps the cable on.

DC’s hip-to-it readers have responded by voting them the Best Blog in the City Paper’s 2010 and 2011 polls, not to mention an admirable third-place in “Best Local Scandal of 2010.” (Who could possibly have competed with Marion Berry?) 2birds1blog has also attained distinction as WTOP’s “Best Local Blog” and an NPR intern’s “Best of the Web” picks.

The pair’s first book, The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life, offers advice on making friends (and somehow keeping them), commuting to work, the work/life balance, sex and love, surviving the holidays, and dying, to name a few. While the book purports to offer advice for misanthropes of all ages, it’s not surprising that the authors shine in the sections for twenty-somethings.

One of the best parts of the book include a rant well-known to fans: Meg’s distaste for those who ignore public transportation etiquette, from Metro pole-leaners to riders with rolling backpacks trailing behind them. The authors attribute such behavior to paradigm shifts:

In the past several decades, America’s understanding of what a “family” is has undergone significant changes. Children today are not necessarily raised by a mother and a father, but may be raised by a single parent, a same-sex couple, or, apparently, roving packs of rabid wolves.

Although their blog has become popular for going into hilarious and sometimes over-the-top detail about their daily lives, the book sticks strictly to its misanthropic theme. Terrified of spending happy hour with your coworkers? Made them feel bad by telling them you’re a recovering alcoholic. Want to quit your job? Plan an elaborate fake wedding. Amusing, sure, but perhaps a little disappointing for fans looking for more of Meg and Chris’s personal stories.

Rowland and Turner-Neal have created a brand that is predicated upon being open about their personal lives. What could be funnier than Meg’s infectious diarrhea episodes, or the time she almost hooked up with a guy who tried to use fish tranquilizer as an aphrodisiac? They have proven on their blog that they are at their most uproarious when they are disclosing some embarrassing fact about themselves. In breaching propriety again and again, Meg and Chris become a standard against which other twenty-somethings struggling with identity and purpose can hold themselves and think, “Maybe my life isn’t so bad, after all.” A dubious honor, but one that has amassed a cult-like following for the bloggers. It is puzzling, then, that they would abandon their signature style for a more conventional humor book.

Longtime readers of 2b1b might be tempted to skip the short introduction to get into the good stuff, like the quiz about what kind of misanthrope you are. (Options include Avoidant Misanthrope, Crotchety Misanthrope, Stealth Misanthrope, and straight-up Asshole.) But if you are interested in the book because you are a fan of 2b1b, don’t miss the introduction. This is the only part of the book where the authors directly reference their own lives.

Those qualms aside, the duo does not fail in their quest to entertain. Passages like the one describing Christmas shopping rites abound:

Since most Americans have never directly experienced famine, catastrophe, or the privations of war, we have to manufacture nightmarish, traumatic events to serve as bonding experiences. This is how Black Friday came to be.

The Misanthrope’s Guide to Life is fun to flip through—a good bathroom book, perhaps—but I’m still waiting for a joint memoir from the comedic force behind 2birds1blog.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy The Misanthrope’s Guide from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

Twelve Nonfiction Books on Tanzania

In just a few weeks, I’m leaving for Tanzania! Naturally, my mind first turns to books about or from Tanzania. Last week, I listed six novels I’d like to read before/after the trip; this week, I’m focusing on nonfiction titles.

Guides & Wonky Stuff

Personal accounts

Conservation & Culture

Have you read any of these or other nonfiction books on or from Tanzania? What am I missing?

September Nonfiction Book Club: “The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean

It’s been a few months, and the Nonfiction Book Group at One More Page Books & More is going strong! Our selection for September is The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean.

9780316182331Here’s more on the book:

In The Violinist’s Thumb, bestselling author Sam Kean explores the wonders of the magical building block of life: DNA.

There are genes to explain crazy cat ladies, why other people have no fingerprints, and why some people survive nuclear bombs. Genes illuminate everything from JFK’s bronze skin (it wasn’t a tan) to Einstein’s genius. They prove that Neanderthals and humans bred thousands of years more recently than any of us would feel comfortable thinking. They can even allow some people, because of the exceptional flexibility of their thumbs and fingers, to become truly singular violinists.

Kean’s vibrant storytelling once again makes science entertaining, explaining human history and whimsy while showing how DNA will influence our species’ future.

Sam Kean is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Disappearing Spoon. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, and New Scientist, and has been featured on NPR’s “Radiolab” and “All Things Considered.”

Join us on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm to discuss the book. I encourage you to drop by even if you haven’t finished the book. The joy of reading nonfiction is that the discussion tends to range our current cultural and political terrain, and anyone can join in. I hope to see you there!

“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed

WildTitle: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Author: Cheryl Strayed
ISBN: 9780307476074
Pages: 336
Release date: March 26, 2013
Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Memoir
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

When Cheryl Strayed set off to hike an 1,100-mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), she wasn’t just leaving the comforts of home behind. She was attempting to discard a lifetime of emotional baggage as well: grief over her mother’s death, anger over her father’s abandonment, pain over her recent divorce, promiscuity, and a heroin problem:

It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. Not pretty, but clean. Not good, but void of regret. I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure myself.

In addition to a documenting a journey of self-discovery, Wild is a paean to Strayed’s mother. From the first page, when she describes seeing one of her boots accidentally tumble down the mountainside, she reflects: “What is one boot without another? It is nothing.” The connection to her sense of loss after her mother’s death is obvious. From the beginning, she sets up this journey as a way to heal—not to get over her mother’s death, not to tie everything up in a neat bow, but to be able to grow up and move past her past:

I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be—strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.

On the trail, there is only the next step, and then the next. As Cheryl walks, she finds strength—not only a physical strength she never knew she had, but emotional fortitude as well.

I wanted to read this book because I was a big fan of Dear Sugar, her once-anonymous column on The Rumpus, and Wild single-bookedly restarted Oprah’s book club, aka Oprah 2.0.

However, Wild was mixed bag for me.

Strayed has no shortage of problems, some of which are external but several of which are her own doing (cheating on her husband, doing heroin). But she has an unusual attitude toward her mistakes: they made her who she is. While I like that approach, the way it plays out in the book made me wonder if she was being completely honest with herself. The purpose of this book is to document her change—how the trail is remaking her. But she glides over the troubles that she got into in the beginning. She spends a lot of time (rightfully) mourning her mom, and then mentions almost in passing the split between her, her siblings, and her stepfather. What happened there?

But at the same time, it was refreshing to read about a woman who had made dangerous mistakes and still came out OK. (Better than OK. Did I mention Oprah?)

It’s important to note the long years that passed between the hike and the writing of the book. Strayed (the grown woman) seems very conscious of shaping a narrative for herself (as a young woman). This book drove home to me the value of journaling. In fact, I suspect that she intended this trip to boost her out of her writing funk as well. She seemed to take copious notes—or she has an incredibly memory.

I recommend this book to fans of memoirs and to outdoors enthusiasts. Wild is a memorable journey from loss to renewal.

Quotes of note:

On finishing the hike: “Who would I be if I did? Who would I be if I didn’t?”

On change: “Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.”

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Wild from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Six Authors, Ten Books on Zambia

I am currently traveling in Zambia for work. Before I left, I did what I always do: searched for seminal works of literature about the country or by authors representing the country. I was quite surprised that Zambia remains a relatively unexplored country in literature. (Perhaps the world is waiting for my bestselling thriller about journalists in Zambia!)

But I did find a few titles that are worth sharing, if you’re itching to read about Zambia—either as an armchair traveler, or in preparation for your own journey.

97818416237331. Zambia (Bradt Travel Guide: Fifth Edition) by Chris McIntyre
According to the reviews I read, this is the best guide to Zambia. I’ve only skimmed it, but so far I have learned that Zambia is one of the best destinations in Africa for walking and river safaris, as well as hot springs and waterfalls. According to the publisher, the book “includes advice for the independent traveller: how to bush camp in comfort, survival techniques for canoe encounters with hippos or crocodiles as well as guidance on all-terrain driving.” The country hosts a whopping total of 19 national parks, and recently Travel + Leisure called Zambia “Africa’s next great safari destination.” We won’t be going on any safaris, but praise like this makes me wish I’d extended my trip!

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight2. Anything by Alexandra Fuller
I’m about halfway through Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller’s first memoir, and I love it. I’m looking forward to reading her other books: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Scribbling the Cat, and Falling: The Story of a Marriage. Fuller grew up in the countries now known as Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, and her nonfiction explores her identity as a white African, as well as larger themes of family, love, and loss.

97804492152413. Mrs. Pollifax on Safari by Dorothy Gilman
I haven’t read this book, which is apparently the fifth in the Mrs. Pollifax series. According to the publisher: “Mrs. Pollifax has been sent on safari by the C.I.A. and told only to take pictures of all of her companions, in order to find the international assassin whose next target is the president of Zambia. It sounded so simple, but shortly after Mrs. Pollifax started taking pictures, someone stole her film. And right after that she was kidnapped by Rhodesian terrorists. And right after that–well, read for yourself…” As you can probably tell by the reference to Rhodesia, this book is a bit dated; it was first published in 1987. But it’s the only work of fiction about Zambia that I could find—which was surprising enough to make me want to read it.

97803807199904. The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham
If you’re looking for a history of colonialism in Africa, this seems like your book. Publishers Weekly calls is a “dramatic, gripping chronicle.” More on the book itself from PW:

“In scarcely half a generation during the late 1800s, six European powers sliced up Africa like a cake. The pieces went to Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Belgium; among them, they acquired 30 new colonies and 110 million subjects. Although African rulers resisted, many battles were one-sided massacres. . . At center stage are a motley band of explorers, politicians, evangelists, mercenaries, journalists and tycoons blinded by romantic nationalism or caught up in the scramble for loot, markets and slaves. In an epilogue Pakenham tells how the former colonial powers still dominate the economies of the African nations, most of which are under one-party or dictatorial rule.”

97806188725035. Secrets of the Savanna and The Eye of the Elephant by Mark and Cordelia Owens
Zoologists and conservationists Mark and Delia Owens were expelled from Botswana after writing Cry of the Kalahari. So they moved to Zambia, where they encountered elephant poachers—the subject of The Eye of the Elephant. In Secrets of the Savanna, they reflect on their experiences with the animals and people of Zambia specifically and Africa more generally. I haven’t read either of these books, so I can’t properly recommend them, but I’m very curious to read them.

97801401882646. North of South: An African Journey by Shiva Naipaul
Shiva Naipaul (brother to V.S. Naipaul) traveled to Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia for several months in the 1970s. According to the publisher, “he aimed to discover what ‘liberation’, ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’ meant to the ordinary people. His journey of discovery is brilliantly documented in this intimate, comic and controversial portrayal of a continent on the brink of change.” Again, this is one I haven’t read, but it seems important in the very small canon of Zambia books.

In several of these books—the last one especially—I’d like to contrast their experiences with my own (admittedly limited) experience of Zambia. So many changes have swept the continent in the last few decades; I’d love to learn what’s changed and what’s stayed the same.

Have you read any of these or other books on Zambia? What am I missing?

“Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedTitle: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
Author: Jenny Lawson
ISBN: 9780399159015
Pages: 336
Release date: April 17, 2012
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Genre: Memoir/Humor
Format: Hardcover
Source: BEA swag
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jenny Lawson, better known as The Bloggess, is kind of a big deal. She has more than 342,000 Twitter followers–including Neil Gaiman–and a popular blog supported by ad revenue; maintaining her site and Twitter feed is a full-time job. After becoming an online superstar, she published Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir.

That’s why I was surprised by her appearance at Book Expo America (BEA) last year. Not only did she look very different from the picture she uses online, but she was kind of a wreck–hands shaking, clearly nervous, on the point of puking. I kind of expected a bigshot to get up there and tell one joke after another. Instead, she talked about how heavily medicated she had to be in order to speak in public. She talked about how mental illness is stigmatized, and how she has the urge to self-harm, and how sometimes she is too depressed to get out of bed.

She was absolutely, heartbreakingly honest. I was moved to the point of tears, and immediately read her book on the bus ride home.

The point of the book, she writes in a brief note at the beginning, is to trace how the unusual and bizarre events of life make you into the person you are.

From artificially inseminating a cow by hand (or, rather, arm)…
to dropping acid and talking on the phone to a Thundercat…
to accidentally ordering taxidermied animals online….

Lawson has no shortage of bizarre stories. Her book is howl-with-laughter funny (warning: people on the bus will shoot you strange looks, but the upside is, no one will want to sit next to you!)

The book is chronological, going through childhood up until now. She focuses on the funny scenes, only giving enough background to grant context. The scenes from her childhood are funny, but I thought she really got rolling as an adult—when she met and married her husband, Victor, and especially her struggles to conceive and then give birth to her daughter, Hailey. The book could have been about only that. Perhaps my favorite part is when she tries to convince her obstetrician to create a lightning-shaped scar (a la Harry Potter) with the episiotomy. (Sadly, she does not prevail.)

Some of the best parts are when she talks about her mental health issues: anorexia, depression, the urge to self-harm. She is painfully honest but also painfully funny. I dog-eared far too many passages to share here.

As a writer, I was interested in her creative process and the road to publishing a book. At BEA, she addressed the question of turning a blog into a book. She said that, actually, she wrote a book about her family to show her daughter, but it ended up being too personal to publish. So she stashed it and starting blogging, which is where she found her niche and developed her voice. Then this book came about, so she said it was more like a book-to-blog-to-book.

My one criticism has to do with structure. Memoir is different from autobiography in its focus on a certain event or idea. This book doesn’t really have that focus. It seems like she selected scenes just because they were funny–not because they built to some larger narrative. I wonder if this is because of her history as a blogger; sometimes, it’s almost like a collection of printed blog posts–although these chapters are much, much longer than a post. I also thought that the slapstick humor that often works well on a blog gets a little old in a book.

That being said, I really enjoyed Let’s Pretend. Jenny Lawson is uproariously funny while still handling some very difficult topics with grace and honesty. Read it if you like funny, sometimes crude, and always awkward family stories.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy Let’s Pretend This Never Happened from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle version is available).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

“District Lines”: New Literary Journal Devoted to DC

Today, Politics & Prose bookstore announced that they are releasing a new literary journal, District Lines. The publication will be produced on their print-on-demand machine, the unveiling of which I attended back in 2011. It’s a smart marketing move for the store; not only does it position them even more as a literary destination, it also showcases what the POD machine can do for any customer.

Here’s more info about the journal:

District LinesIn a city known for its lobbyists, lawyers, and politicians, Politics & Prose Bookstore is celebrating Washington’s lesser-known side with the release of its inaugural issue of District Lines, an anthology of original work from established and emerging names in the local arts community.

Printed on Politics & Prose’s in-house book-printing machine, District Lines contains essays, short fiction, poems, sketches, and photography on quirky and serious subjects ranging from a sighting of Effi Barry on a Metro bus to an August night on the Q Street Bridge to hotcakes at the Florida Avenue Grill to an ode to the Dupont Circle metro escalator.

Anthology contributors will read at Politics & Prose on Saturday, June 15 at 3:30 p.m. District Lines is $15 and goes on sale on Monday, May 20 at Politics & Prose.

They’re not sure how frequently the journal will be published–probably every year. I’m looking into what the submission guidelines are like, and will update this post when I find them.

Top Ten Books on Science: My Summer Reading List

I’ve developed an interest in science ever since graduating college, but sometimes I feel like I’m missing crucial elements of my education, partly because I was homeschooled. This summer, I hope to do a lot of catching up by (re)educating myself on basic scientific principles. Here’s what I’ll be reading:

A Briefer History of Time1. A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking’s worldwide bestseller A Brief History of Time remains a landmark volume in scientific writing. But for years readers have asked for a more accessible formulation of its key concepts—the nature of space and time, the role of God in creation, and the history and future of the universe. This is Professor Hawking’s response. Although “briefer,” this book is much more than a mere explanation of Hawking’s earlier work. A Briefer History of Time both clarifies and expands on the great subjects of the original, and records the latest developments in the field—from string theory to the search for a unified theory of all the forces of physics.

The Demon-Haunted World2. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
How can we make intelligent decisions about our increasingly technology-driven lives if we don’t understand the difference between the myths of pseudoscience and the testable hypotheses of science? Pulitzer Prize-winning author and distinguished astronomer Carl Sagan argues that scientific thinking is critical not only to the pursuit of truth but to the very well-being of our democratic institutions. As Sagan demonstrates with lucid eloquence, the siren song of unreason is not just a cultural wrong turn but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.

Written in Stone3. Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek
Spectacular fossil finds make today’s headlines; new technology unlocks secrets of skeletons unearthed a hundred years ago. Still, evolution is often poorly represented by the media and misunderstood by the public. A potent antidote to pseudoscience, Written in Stone is an engrossing history of evolutionary discovery for anyone who has marveled at the variety and richness of life.

Your Inner Fish4. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
Why do we look the way we do? Neil Shubin, the paleontologist and professor of anatomy who co-discovered Tiktaalik, the “fish with hands,” tells the story of our bodies as you’ve never heard it before. By examining fossils and DNA, he shows us that our hands actually resemble fish fins, our heads are organized like long-extinct jawless fish, and major parts of our genomes look and function like those of worms and bacteria. Your Inner Fish makes us look at ourselves and our world in an illuminating new light.

The First Three Minutes5. The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe by Steven Weinberg
This classic of contemporary science writing by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist explains to general readers what happened when the universe began, and how we know.

Atom6. Atom: An Odyssey from the Big Bang to Life on Earth… and Beyond by Lawrence M. Krauss
The story of matter and the history of the cosmos–from the perspective of a single oxygen atom–is told with the insight and wit of one of the most dynamic physicists and writers working today. Sample reviews: “A reader of this book will travel with the atom, and learn a great deal of modern particle physics, astrophysics and molecular biology”; “Even the least scientifically inclined will be able to comprehend the events that shaped the universe and which conspired to create our own solar system.”

Big Bang7. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh
A half century ago, a shocking Washington Post headline claimed that the world began in five cataclysmic minutes rather than having existed for all time; a skeptical scientist dubbed the maverick theory the Big Bang. In this amazingly comprehensible history of the universe, Simon Singh decodes the mystery behind the Big Bang theory, lading us through the development of one of the most extraordinary, important, and awe-inspiring theories in science.

The Elegant Universe8. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene
Brian Greene, one of the world’s leading string theorists, peels away the layers of mystery surrounding string theory to reveal a universe that consists of eleven dimensions, where the fabric of space tears and repairs itself, and all matter from the smallest quarks to the most gargantuan supernovas is generated by the vibrations of microscopically tiny loops of energy. In this brilliantly articulated and refreshingly clear book, Greene relates the scientific story and the human struggle behind twentieth-century physics’ search for a theory of everything.

The Universe Within9. The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People by Neil Shubin
How are the events that formed our solar system billions of years ago embedded inside each of us? Starting once again with fossils, Shubin turns his gaze skyward, showing us how the entirety of the universe’s fourteen-billion-year history can be seen in our bodies. As he moves from our very molecular composition (a result of stellar events at the origin of our solar system) through the workings of our eyes, Shubin makes clear how the evolution of the cosmos has profoundly marked our own bodies.

On the Origin of Species10. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
This landmark work of scientific and philosophical thought sets forth Charles Darwin’s pioneering theory of evolution and the interdependence of species. On the Origin of Species had an immediate and profound impact on the literature and ideas of his contemporaries. Without setting out to be controversial, Darwin became quite possibly the most revolutionary writer of the Victorian age, overturning the widely held religious and scientific beliefs of his time.

Have you read any of these? Are there any good books on science–particularly evolution and cosmology–that I’m missing?

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