Category: Observations about Life


IMG_6093I’ve said time and time again that I prefer novels to “literature” because novels tend to contain plot, whereas much literature focuses on language.  That’s true, and I stand behind that.  However, many classics and literary fiction, I’m finding, also contain ideas.  I love ideas and thought exercises.  In looking at the books I most enjoy, they blend plot and character with ideas.  The books aren’t just about Jane Doe who does something and interacts with Jack and Jill and does some stuff.  The books I love most are about concepts.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, was laced with existentialism.  I read complaints that teenagers don’t really talk the way August and Hazel do, but I disagree.  As a teenager, I was an amateur philosopher, discussing grand ideas with my friends.  As two teens intimately acquainted with dying, I can believe that August and Hazel would look to symbolism and philosophy to find their place in the world.

I’ve realized recently that many of the books I read most are not the ones I actually enjoy the most.  I really like reading romance novels.  They’re easy to get through, fun to read, and fast.  But on the enjoyment scale, most of them hit around a 3 out of 5, meaning I liked them but didn’t love them.  Same with many YA novels.  In contrast, books like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Martian by Andy Weir, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel are among the books I enjoyed most last year, because they’re about concepts and ideas as well as plot and character.  They’re about racism, loneliness, isolation, the characters’ places in the world while being narrated by an engaging person in an interesting plot.

One of the things I like best about my book club is that the other women pick books I’d probably never choose to read on my own.  Some of those books have ended up being favorites of mine.  Or if not favorites, have made me think.

Now, how does this post relate to the title?  Well, French fries are my favorite food.  I could eat them all day, every day, except that they’re not actually that good for me.  I love salad, but it never seems as appealing to eat as French fries do.  Yet, sometimes when I dig into a salad and taste all those fresh flavors, I’m reminded of why I love them so.

Books are kind of like that.  While there’s nothing wrong with junk food novels, when I fill up on them, I don’t have any room left over for the good stuff.  Yeah, sometimes those other books end up being bland and flat, but every once in awhile, I find one that’s so fresh, full of invigorating ideas, that it causes me to look at the world differently.

I live for those books.

 

 

_DSF6807

Longhorn Cavern State Park, Marble Falls TX

There are no great stories that start without adversity. No one wants to hear about the rich man who got richer or the smart woman who got smarter.

We want to hear stories about people who beat odds. Who overcame obstacles.

Sometimes those obstacles are external. Life situations like poverty or bad parents. Racism. Oppression.

Sometimes the obstacles are internal. Like mental health issues. Perceived messages from others, like “You can’t do it” or “you’re not good enough.”

If Scrooge had been a philanthropist from the beginning, there wouldn’t have been a story. The narrator in Fight Club started off feeling powerless, and went on to make something bigger than himself. Abraham Lincoln was poor and mostly self-educated.

I know many successful people who beat themselves up for not being perfect. Of course, they know they’re not supposed to be perfect, will tell you that it’s impossible to be perfect, but then stress out over mistakes.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Maybe because we know we’re capable of being better than the mistakes we make? Maybe because we judge ourselves by our mistakes and worst behavior? Or we’re worried that others are judging us that way?

I’m sure that it’s all more complicated than just one or two reasons. Our brains are magnificent, frustrating, complex entities, capable of creating art and science, and capable of telling us that others have nothing better to do than remember when we say or do something we shouldn’t have.

Here’s the thing: your life is just a story. It’s a series of memories, and moments. You get to pick what you put int that story. You’re the narrator. Are you going to pick on your main character every time they screw up? Or are you going to treat them kindly, putting in only the learning from the mistakes?

Most of us don’t focus on all the times Harry Potter screwed up. He destroyed Voldemort in the end, so what does it matter that he drove a car into the Whomping Willow or that he didn’t learn occlumency? People still read Twilight, despite the fact that Edward was an emo sparkly vampire. (Maybe not the best example. And yes, as much as I make fun of it, I read and enjoyed Twilight. But please don’t tell anyone.) We still like Kevin Smith, even after Gigli.

Mistakes don’t define us. It’s how we deal with mistakes that counts.

imagesWhen I was a kid, I was scornful of people who read comics.  Actually, I was scornful of lots of things.  Some might have called me a bit of a snob.  I prefer to acknowledge that I was a bit of a brat.

A few years ago, I friend got me interested in webcomics.  There are a few I read regularly, and they tell quite a good story.  Truthfully, I’ve always envied people who can draw, so to be able to tell a good story and draw is quite an accomplishment.

Anyway.

I love quotes.  I have a notebook full of them, where I write my favorites.  I have others printed and pinned up on my wall, and still others made into posters and framed.

Zen Pencils is a webcomic, where Gavin Aung Than takes quotes and turns them into comics.  He’s done a variety of them, and has also published two books.  His interpretation of some of the quotes has deepened my understanding of them, and also made me work harder to come up with my own interpretation.

I got to meet him at a book signing a few months back, and he’s a very nice guy.  He quit a job he didn’t like to work full time doing his comic.

While many of the quotes he’s illustrated speak to me, his story has also influenced me.  He worked hard, and kept working.  But ultimately, he made the leap, quit his job, and was able to do what he loves.  I find that combination of hard work and fearlessness to be inspirational.

I love to write, and think I’m a pretty good writer, but there are days when I’m tempted to delete everything I’ve ever written (not quite as dramatic as burning it, but these are the days of the computer).  And then I remember that it’s not the most talented people who succeed, but the ones who keep trying and aren’t afraid to work for success.

That’s a fitting end this month of blogging, don’t you think?

“So maybe what you’re doing right now isn’t ideally where you’d like to be, but perhaps it’s just practice for your dream job in the future. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.”

-Gavin Aung Than

Unknown-10The end of the alphabet is always tough.  I could only find one book starting with a “Y” that I’d actually read, and it didn’t affect me in any way.

This book was one of the many on my “W” list, and when it occurred to me that I could get creative and use it, I was thrilled.  This is a book that I feel very passionately that more people should read.

Why People Die by Suicide, by Thomas Joiner, is a book that was recommended to me when I started my job as a crisis therapist.  It opened my eyes to so many of the reasons that people attempt suicide.

There are a lot of myths about suicide.  We saw that after the death of Robin Williams.  People had opinions.  Many people expressed that he was selfish or cowardly.  It’s easier to believe that, I suppose.

The truth is that when people die by suicide, they often feel that they’re doing a good thing for their friends and family.  They honestly feel that others will be better off without them.

Suicide touches the lives of many people, and I think it’s important to talk about it, de-stigmatize it.  Talking about it gives us all power.  Plus, as I learned while working crisis, you never know when talking to someone frankly about what they’re dealing with can help them to make a less permanent decision.

Suicide is a permanent reaction to a temporary problem.

This is an accessible book for anyone who’s interested in learning more about this topic.  The clinical psychologist who wrote it started asking the question after someone in his family died from suicide.  The information is tied into research, but there are also anecdotes and

This book helped me gain a better understanding of this topic, but it also helped me be more empathetic.  It’s hard for most people to understand what goes through the mind of someone who chooses to die, which is what makes books like this one so important.

Understanding, love, compassion are all things the world could use a little more of.

 

Unknown-9So, before I get into the meat of this post, you should probably know that I actually do know that W comes BEFORE X.  I’m not really sure how or why I posted X yesterday.  My only excuse is that I’m on a trip visiting family, and I was distracted.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.  :)

I first read When Rabbit Howls when I was a teenager.  I was extremely interested in dissociative identity disorder ever since I’d watched the movie Sybil (and later read the book).

When Rabbit Howls is an autobiography about Truddi Chase, telling the story of how she discovered she had survived a traumatic childhood and split into 92 personalities to handle it.

This book wasn’t the first I’d read on child abuse or mental health, but it stuck with me more than any of the others.  Maybe because it was written from the point of view of the personalities.  It was intensely personal, and made me want to learn more.

This story made me realize that all of us have more than one truth.  I was already starting to believe that truth was somewhat subjective, and this book pushed me further along that path.  It got me interested in all the amazing things the brain can do, including creating 92 people to protect one person.

If you’re looking for a riveting autobiography, I’d recommend this one.  But be warned; the author was abused as a child and she discusses it.  Because of that, it’s not a book for everyone.

What’s your favorite book about mental health?

“I cherished her individuality, that spark of independence no child should lose to life’s restrictions and parameters.”
― Truddi Chase

IMG_5580I don’t have a specific book for “X.”  I tried, but I got nothin’.

So instead of a specific book, I’m going to talk about crossover books.

When I was a kid, people either read kid books (which included young adult) or grown up books.  Then, along came Harry Potter, which everyone read.  After Harry Potter was Twilight, and suddenly the barrier on YA was blasted wide open.  Now it’s a legit genre for adults, and everyone is reading it.

I’ve never stopped reading young adult books and even some middle grade books.  If they’re well-written, I don’t see any problem with my enjoying them.

I’ve had people ask me why I was reading a particular book, “Isn’t that a kids’ book?” and my answer is always, “Because I like it.”

Since everyone started reading young adult books (or admitting they do), it does mean I have more people with whom I can discuss these books.

I think that genre is becoming less important with books than having them be interesting with characters people can connect to.  They also must have at least a little magic.

Many of the books I’ve written about during this challenge are books that I loved as a kid and still love as an adult.  Special mention of several other books that I won’t be talking about during this challenge, but have also managed to stick with me: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, Watership Down by Richard Adams, Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter, anything by LJ Smith, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Are there any books from childhood/ teenage years that you still read?

Unknown-1I saw the movie, V for Vendetta when it first came out, and it’s one of those rare movies that I loved.  I loved the wordplay, the philosophy, and the idea that one man could create so much change.  I also loved how Evey changes so much over the course of the movie.  When the end credits rolled and I saw it was based on a book, I hurried to Amazon to buy it.

Imagine my dismay when I found out that it wasn’t a book, but a graphic novel.  A comic book.

I didn’t read comic books as a kid.  Partly because there weren’t enough words in them, so they moved too slowly for me.  Partly because I was a snob and thought they were somewhat too childish for me.

I couldn’t resist V for Vendetta though, and I learned that, as with so many other things, my pre-judgement was wrong.

It’s true that graphic novels tend to have fewer words and rely more heavily on visual storytelling, but it’s just a different way to tell a story.  It’s not better or worse than novels; they are their own medium.

The movie and the graphic novel are different, but this is one of the few times that doesn’t bother me.  They are both quite good versions of the same story.

I think I’m finally to the point where I don’t say that I won’t read something.  I know that I don’t know what something’s going to be like until I try it.

Unknown-8I’m a big fan of fairy tales. I’ve heard about them from my grandmother, and then as I got older, I bought and devoured anthologies full of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm’s Fairy tales.

The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen, is one of the earliest stories I remember hearing about bullying. Of course, most people who think of the story will tell you that it’s about an ugly duck who becomes a swan, and how beauty can blossom.

But when I read this story, it made me realize that others will bully anyone who is different. Ugly is just one thing.

When I was little, I was bullied by a bunch of different kids. I was called names that seem laughable to me now. Sometimes I thought that meant there was something wrong with me, but eventually, after I realized that people will pick on anyone who’s different, I decided to embrace my differentness.

By the time I got to high school, most people didn’t bother to pick on me anymore. And if they did, I turned it into a joke or insulted their lame insults. I pretended that nothing bothered me, and sometimes I even believed it.

The point of the story in the end is that the ugly duckling is really a swan, and really quite pretty. But the more important part is that the ugly duckling has become pretty because he’s among swans, among the others who are like him.

I too, eventually found my swans.

“The whole world is a series of miracles, but we’re so used to them we call them ordinary things.”

― Hans Christian Andersen

Unknown-7These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the 6th of the 8 books in the Little House on the Prairie series.  I read them all as a child, and then again a few years ago, but These Happy Golden Years is the one that stuck with me.  I re-read it every year or two, and my copy is so well-loved that I have book tape keeping it together.

I went through a time in my later teenage years/ young adult years where I couldn’t get enough romance novels.  Most romance novels these days rely on explicit sex scenes to keep the tension high.  Part of that is that there’s more sex in dating than there was in the 1870s.  Part of it, I think, is that people have forgotten that romance should be… romantic.

This book isn’t a romance novel.  It’s about 15-17 year old Laura, who starts teaching school.  She’s growing up, and part of that is that the older Almanzo Wilder is wooing her. He starts driving her home from the school where she lives on weekends, driving hours through blizzards without asking more than her company.

This contrast with other books I was reading really struck me.  It didn’t rely on words to show affection; it relied on action.  At one point, Laura tells him straight out that she’s not interested in him, and he still continues to be nice to her.

I thought that there had to be sex in romance novels, and maybe that’s what romance readers expect.  But this book helped me realize that I can write a book with romance without getting into all the mechanics of it.  I don’t object to sex scenes, but I think that paying attention to other, more subtle kinds of romance, can have a much larger payoff.

The books are written in a straightforward manner, with simple language and phrases.  It doesn’t rely on flowery words or imagery.  The books just tell the story, and allow the reader to enjoy it.  I love relaxing with these books like I’m relaxing with an old friend.

It took me years to realize that I was also learning some history along with the books.

If I had to read historical fiction in high school instead of that dry history, I would have retained more.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, it’s my favorite book in the series.

Did you read these books?  Do you have a favorite?

 

DSCN1168

I lived in a house on a hill that butted up to a patch of forest and a hill.  It seemed huge to me then; we called it a mountain, and I was sure I could get lost in those woods, even though they were probably only a few miles square.

I liked to go into the woods with a book or a notebook and read or make up stories.  Sometimes both.  My favorite place had a couple of trees surrounding a circular-ish clearing.  It was flat and horizontal, instead of ascending as most of the rest of the hill.

I liked to sit at the foot of one of the trees.  Roots formed a nice seat.  I’d take off my shoes and rest my feet on the cool ground.  Light would dapple in through the leaves.  It was bright enough to read, but never so bright that it got hot.

I loved it there, and it felt secret, even though it probably wasn’t.  I seldom saw other people in the woods.  It was just me, the music of leaves and birdsong, and the characters in my head.

The Secret Garden, by Francis Hodges Burnett, resonated with me because I felt the same way that Mary did.  When she discovered the garden, it was like waking up for her.  Being in my woods did the same for me.

IMG_5516.jpg

I loved the garden in this story, though when I first read it as a kid, I didn’t appreciate all the metaphors in it.  This book also taught me that people can change.  Both Mary and Colin are ill-tempered, sour children.  But the power of the Magic in the garden changed them.  No adult intervened to teach them lessons.  They had to learn for themselves how to be better versions of themselves.

The idea that people can change blossomed in my brain, and it was a lesson I never forgot. People can change themselves, if they want to.  They have to invite Magic into their lives, and only then can they accomplish wonderful things.

We’re all connected: to nature, to one another, to magic, to love.  We just have to be willing to open ourselves up, put in the work, be aware of what’s around us.

Did you ever have a “secret” place?

“Where you tend a rose, my lad, A thistle cannot grow.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 346 other followers