Sunday, May 27, 2007

I'm Either in my Midlife Crisis or Just Cranky

I recently read "Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation -- and What to Do About It" by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin. My friends reading this post might wonder if I'm trying to fool someone into thinking I am still 30 myself. Now, when I got the call from my high school classmate to invite me to our 20th reunion this summer, I wondered how she ever made it through math (because that CAN'T be 20 years ago -- can it?) but I have to admit that I am well past 30 myself.

So what made me read this book? Because I am at a place in my life where I sometimes question the choices I have made and wonder where I am going from here. Because I have another year until my youngest child starts kindergarten, and I sometimes feel like that is a deadline for me to get back to work and do "grown-up" things with my life. Because I wonder why I spent so much money and effort on graduate school, then only used that degree for three years. Because sometimes I feel like I'm not very good at my current job (housewife & stay-at-home mom) and wonder if I should quit, or at least cut back on my hours. This is my "mid-life crisis".

Sure, these are the complaints of an over privileged person. Lots of people would love to be in my shoes, having so many choices. But this book points out that having seemingly unlimited choices is one of the reasons that many well-educated and successful women are anxious, questioning, and even unhappy. As thirty-ish women grew up, we were the first generation to be told, as a group, that we could do anything and everything. We could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and seduce our man (hopefully not while holding that pan of sizzling lard). And when we can't meet our high expectations, we blame ourselves.

The authors want to help women realize that their problems and situations are not individual, but actually common to their generation. The first part of this book features vignettes of women in their late twenties and early thirties. Some women wonder why they are thirty and still don't have a job with a high enough salary to pay off their student loans. Others have a great career, but worry that it will be destroyed if they take time to have children. Others identify so much with their jobs that they have no social life outside of work, and wonder if they will ever get married. Thirty is a difficult age for many women.

So what's the solution? The second part of the book consists of interviews with women well over 30, mostly baby boomers, talking about the difficulties they faced and how they addressed them. They are meant to be mentors for the younger generation. These women talk about the risks they took, the mistakes they made, and how they dealt with sexism, work/family balance, parenting, not being a parent, being fired, and changing careers. All these mentors have had successes, and provide reassuring stories about how they weathered the storms.

One flaw of the book is that these "mentors" are all conventionally successful: high-level executives, published authors, even a three-star general. There are very few examples of women who left the workforce completely, as I have done for the last four years. And yet I found it reassuring to read so many stories of women who faced many difficulties in their thirties, but can now look back years later and be proud of what they have made of their lives. There's hope still that someday I too will figure out who I want to be when I grow up.

And we can all start working on getting other women in this world into the envious position of wondering how they can do it all, rather than knowing they have no choices at all. But that is another book.

Thanks to Jennifer for lending me her book!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Clean Sweep Your Own Home

I love the TV show Clean Sweep. First of all, the homes on this show are REALLY messy. They make my house seem neat and tidy in comparison. I may have piles of stuff on my desk, but at least I don't sleep on my sofa because my bed is covered with laundry. At least I don't have dozens of boxes of my children's outgrown clothes. At least my bedroom closet isn't full of boxes of stuff that I rushed through the house picking up before company came over. No, wait a minute, I actually do have those boxes. But not nearly as many as the people on the show have in their closets!

But I don't just watch the show to see how much worse other people have it. I also like the way they address the mess and the clutter. Instead of focusing on throwing things out, they take all of the homeowners' belongings out of two rooms of their home, and put them on the lawn. There the homeowners can focus on what they want to keep, not on what they need to sell or throw out. When the homeowners wail and gnash their teeth, claiming they absolutely need all of these belongings, Peter Walsh steps in.

Peter Walsh is Clean Sweep's Organizer. He is the person who convinces the homeowner that his Beanie Baby collection is not going to put his kids through college, and needs to go. He gives a woman who has been separated for eight years permission to throw out her ex-husband's jackets. When someone says they can't get rid of an item because it was a gift, he calls the person who gave it to them and asks if it is okay for the item to be sold. He is gentle when people get emotional, but very firm, and the homeowners generally feel great in the end about getting rid of two-thirds of their belongings. So of course I watch and think, "I need Peter to come to my house!"

Well, I was hoping that Peter Walsh's book, "It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff" would take his place. There is a lot of good stuff in this book. It explains why clutter is bad, some reasons why we hang on to things that we shouldn't, and then gives tips on how to clear the stuff out. The book is clearly written and has some funny anecdotes. For someone who needs this information, it could be a very helpful book.

Unfortunately, as a regular viewer of the show, I'd already heard most of the information found in this book. Other tips sounded much like things I'd heard from Flylady and other organizational and decluttering gurus. And this just reminded me that I spend more time reading about decluttering than actually doing it.

I don't need any more information. I know HOW to clean up my house - I just need to DO it on a regular basis. Or else I need to convince the entire Clean Sweep crew to come out to my house. If a team of people pull all my belongings out into the yard, I guess I would have to start sorting and tossing. And who knows what interesting things I might find in those boxes in the closet!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Bad Dog Max!

Max is a very, very bad dog. She eats socks, steals food off the table, and digs up the neighbors' yard. Her family even has to move the mailbox because the mail carrier won't come in the yard anymore.
Luckily Max's vet is a fan of the Dog Whisperer. She explains that Max doesn't mean to be bad -- she just needs lots of exercise and play time. At the end of the book, Max is still getting in trouble sometimes, but the family loves her anyway, and thinks she is a Good Dog.
My kids and I love Max, even at the beginning of the book when she is being so naughty, because she is pictured as such an adorable bundle of energy. The kids like using the pictures to figure out what the text leaves out. For example, the story says the cat, Monroe, thinks Max is a bad dog. Looking at the picture of Max ignoring her own bowl and eating out of the one labeled "Monroe", you understand why.
This is a fun book to read aloud, especially for dog lovers. I'd say it is best for ages 3-8. "Bad Dog Max" is by Marina Windsor, with pictures by Steve Haskamp.

Two Guys, Two Life Stories

I've read two memoirs recently, "The Tender Bar" by J.R. Moehringer and "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed" by Alan Alda. These men have lived very different lives and have written two very different memoirs.
Moehringer grew up mostly in Long Island. "The Tender Bar" is a story about growing up poor, raised by a single mom and an assortment of local barflies. This may sound like a tough life that he might portray as either humorous or terrible. Instead, although there is both humor and sadness, he really does approach his story in a sweet, tender way. You see the great affection he holds for his family (well, some of his family), the men at the bar who he feels raised him to be a man, and the bookstore owners who he feels educated him. It is a very well written story. The "characters" are interesting and seem very true to life. They must be pretty close, as only a couple of ex-girlfriends asked him not to use their real names. The last part of the book, about the effect of 9/11 on the town, feels a bit like an add-on as he had already moved away at that point in his life. However, as a bedroom community, it was one of the towns hit very hard by the destruction of the World Trade Center, and 9/11 had a huge impact. I can see why it was important for the author to include that in his book. All in all, this was a very good memoir that I enjoyed very much and would recommend to anyone who likes memoirs. Thanks to Janet for recommending it!

I've enjoyed Alda's work on M*A*S*H* and on Scientific American Frontiers. I heard him discussing his memoir on the radio, so I read it with high expectations. I have to say, if I hadn't read it soon after reading "The Tender Bar", I probably would have liked it better. It contains a lot of humorous anecdotes about Alda's life, and is not a typical celebrity memoir that is more about name-dropping than about the subject. However, it sometimes reads like a string of stories that he has told and retold for years. I got the feeling that he has been dining out on these anecdotes for a long, long time. There are some more serious chapters about his mentally ill mother and his sometimes troubled relationship with his father, but most of the book is light and humorous.
It was an easy book to pick up and read for a little while, then put down again. It didn't really hold together as a complete book, or as an overall picture of Alda's life. I felt like he was just sharing bits and pieces that he had been asked about in interviews throughout the years. It isn't a bad memoir, and for a celebrity memoir it is actually pretty candid, but it isn't a great book either. But if you are a fan of Alda, it may be worth a trip to the library.
If I had to give grades, I think "The Tender Bar" would get an A-, and "Never Have Your Dog Stuffed" gets a B-.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

How to Find a Good Book

If you love to read, and care what you read, you have to find good books. But how do you find books that you will enjoy? There are a few different strategies that I use:

At the library, skim the new books area. Look at all the sections. Even if you don't usually read non-fiction, or mysteries, you may find something intriguing that you would never have found otherwise.

Read newspaper and magazine book reviews. Keep a list of books that sound interesting. Your list can be on paper, or start a wish list on Amazon. I have a public wish list for things I hope people will buy for me, and a private wish list for books that I want to read. I'll get a majority of them from the library, but it seems easier to keep a list on Amazon rather than typing things into a document or locating a scrap of paper.

NoveList is a great database that is available through libraries. I can access it from home through my local public library's website. NoveList offers annotated book lists on topics ranging from "Asian-American Literature" to "Beach Reads." My favorite NoveList feature is "Author Read-Alikes." If you like one of the 200 or so popular authors in this list, click on his or her name. You will get a list of books by other authors, with brief descriptions, and the reason they think you will like this other book. The suggestions can include both contemporary and older books. You can create a NoveList account and keep labeled lists of the books you are interested in.
I've used NoveList when I travel. For example, I typed in "New Orleans" as a keyword, and got a large list of novels that take place in New Orleans. I read several before my trip, and I felt like that gave me an idea of the history and mood of the city before I got there. Since I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction, this is more fun for me than reading travel guides and history books.

If you like reading older books, "BookLust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason" has a lot of great suggestions. Author Nancy Pearl is a librarian and book reviewer who has years of experience with steering people towards books they will enjoy. Her categories range from humorous takes on academia to Latin American literature. I found several new authors that I had never read before and was glad to discover.

Want to find all the books an author has written, or want to read a series in the correct order? The best-organized site I have found on the internet is Search by author or by book title. When you search by author, you get a list of all that person's works arranged chronologically or by series. You often also get a brief biography, a list of awards, and sometimes you even get a list of books that author recommends that are written by others.

And of course, you must ask absolutely everyone what they are reading. Sometimes a random conversation with a stranger will point you towards a book that you never would have picked up, but absolutely love.

Please leave comments with other suggestions for finding books that you enjoy!

Fantasy Epics

How many times have you read "Lord of the Rings"? If your answer is, "Read? I thought they were movies" then you can skip this review right now and move to another one. The books I'm discussing today are for people who already like books about swords and magic and epic battles between good and evil. They are entertaining reads, but not great enough to convince someone new to the genre to start reading fantasy.

I'm in the middle of two different fantasy series right now. The first is the Fionavar Tapestry, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Last year I read his books "Sailing to Sarantium" and "Lord of Emperors" which take place in a fantasy world based on the Byzantium empire. This gave the books an original and interesting setting, since so many fantasy books are based on medieval Europe and its folklore.
After enjoying those books, I decided to go back and read Kay's earlier books. "The Summer Tree" is the first book of the the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Five college students meet a mysterious stranger who pulls them into another world which seems very similar to...Lord of the Rings! Not surprising, since Kay helped edit Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but at times it seemed less like an homage than a copy. Dwarves, wizards, an evil enemy trapped in a mountain, even elf-like creatures who do not age, but sail across the sea to an unknown destination...haven't I read all of this before?
However, I kept reading and found enough of interest to keep me going. I liked the second book, "The Wandering Fire," better than the first book, despite the addition of King Arthur. No, not an imitation of King Arthur, the man himself. But there is plenty of war, magic, sacrifices, and sex to keep the reader interested. I'm looking forward to reading the last book, "The Darkest Road." Unfortunately the library has the first two books, but not the last book in the trilogy. Huh? Guess I'll be heading to the bookstore.

The other series I'm reading started with "The Wayfarer Redemption," by Sara Douglas. Paul started me on this one. Now I've read the first two books and am waiting impatiently for him to finish the third one. These books, unlike Kay's, are big, fat fantasy novels. So far, the plot and characters are propelling me through. It helps that the books focus on a small enough group of characters that I can keep track of them. I remember loving Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series when it first came out, but after a few 700-page books I started forgetting who some of the dozens of characters were. Then came the fifth or sixth book, which had 700 pages of nothing really happening, and I gave up on that series. I'm hoping Ms. Douglass can wrap her story up while I still care. Even after just two books, I'm starting to get slightly irritated by the constant foreshadowing of The Prophecy. But apparently I'm a sucker for a long, highly detailed description of a battle between good and evil, so I'll keep reading. But the good guys had better get this battle won in the next 700 pages!

Con Ed

"Con Ed" by Matthew Klein, is the story of a hustler. Kip knows all the cons and has tried most of them. At one point he was even rich. But now he's working at a dry cleaners after spending some time in prison. He is trying to live an honest, lawful life, but a mysterious woman tries to pull him into a big con job. Kip refuses, until his son shows up. His son owes a lot of money to a Russian mob boss, and can't pay it back. But Kip doesn't have the money either -- not unless he pulls off the biggest con of his life.
"In a con, everyone takes part in a play. And everyone knows it is a play, except for one man. The thing you want to make sure is that the man is not you..."
Of course, Kip will try and pull off the big con. And I spent the rest of the book trying to figure out who was in on the real con, and who was a traitor working for the other side. Granted, I never figure out mysteries before the end of the book, so it other readers might catch on faster than I did. But even if you figure out the con, it is a very funny book. It's dark humor, with a lead character a bit like Sam Spade crossed with Tony Soprano. If you liked the movies "Inside Job" or "House of Games", give this a try.