Friday, April 30, 2010


Having read, and fallen in love with Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling title Eat Pray Love, and being married myself, I decided to read her follow up book titled Committed. It is a celebration of marriage, with all the complexities and consequences that real love and relationships actually entail. Gilbert dives into the ever changing history of the institution of marriage, researching, interviewing and examining her own experiences of marriages, and her analysis of how her own prejudice and preconceived notions were tarnishing her ability to see how she could have a happy marriage of her own.

At the end of her memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who’d been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but also swore to never, under any circumstances get legally married, for they were both survivors of previous abhorrent divorces. But providence intervened one day in the form of the United States government, which—after unexpectedly detaining Felipe at an American border crossing—gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again. Having been effectively sentenced to wed, Gilbert tackled her fears of marriage by delving into this topic completely, trying with all her might to discover through historical research, interviews, and much personal reflection what this stubbornly enduring old institution actually is.

Told with wit, intelligence and honesty, Gilbert attempts to provide an eye-opening and thorough account of the colossal entity we call matrimony. We have all grown up accepting marriage as a given. It seems to be taken as common place that people simply grow up and get married- and then, of course, live happily ever after. But Gilbert tries to examine the questions of compatibility, infatuation, fidelity, family tradition, social expectations, divorce risks and humbling responsibilities.

I have to be honest when I say that I was a bit disappointed with this book. I understood going in that it was not going to be another Eat Pray Love, but I thought it would be a little more personal than it turned out to be. The good news is her voice is clear and winning. The bad news is the structure doesn't work. Part history, part travelogue, Committed often makes for a jumpy read. Still, Gilbert remains the spirited storyteller she was in Eat Pray Love, and her central question is a good one—how can a divorce-scarred feminist make a case for marriage?

Throughout the book there were, however, some interesting and memorable vignettes, told in jaunty, ever-curious prose, that brought some life to the otherwise dull book. Gilbert gives us a glimpse into the lives and marriages of the Hmong women in Asia, who don't expect their husbands to be their best friends, and ultimately view matrimony and their partners quite differently than we do in the west. How in modern Iran, young couples can marry for a day, how marriage has been viewed by different religions throughout the centuries, not always as sacred as it has been portrayed to be, with Christians actually being against marriage in the beginning, seeing it as anti-religious, and the way marriage has been used to secure money, power, and property throughout history. Quite simply, Gilbert explains this institution has been pulled, prodded, and changed for centuries- yet still it remains. There is something, then that draws us still to marry.

The History of marriage is fascinating, and I'm glad to have learned more about it, having made many uneducated assumptions about it's history up until now. However, it seems to me that Gilbert is more interested in the history of divorce rather than marriage. She seems excited when she finds out that in medieval Germany, there were two kinds of marriages, one more casual than the other, and seems furious when she recounts the ill effects of the Church on divorce, as it turned marriage into a life sentence. For all of its academic ambition, the most memorable bits of Committed are the personal ones, when she recalls stories about her and her family. Reading about the way her grandfather scattered her grandmother's ashes was heartbreaking yet inspiring, and the story Gilbert shares about the fight she and Felipe had on a 12-hour bus ride in Laos is honest, funny, and I would have liked there to be more of her personal stories throughout the book. For me personally, I learn more from personal, sincere anecdotes, than I do from a page of historical facts, although it's interesting non the less.

Gilbert put a respectable amount of time into research, interviews, reading, and the physical writing of this book. She even scraped her first attempt at it, not liking how she was coming across on the pages. Unfortunately, it seems like it was all a bit of a waste, at least for her personally. Like I expressed earlier, I was glad to have a place where I could learn about some of the more interesting highlights of the evolution of marriage, but it was what Gilbert's own fiance, Felipe, said that seemed to be the big tipping point for her. Late in the story, when she is struggling to figure out the meaning of it all, he says, "When are you going to understand? As soon as we secure this bloody visa and get ourselves safely married back in America, we can do whatever the hell we want". That seemed to be the most enlightening piece of information, and somehow made Gilbert's efforts seem rather pointless.

I adore Eat Pray Love for a variety of reasons. Committed however, is not Eat Pray Love, and thankfully, it doesn't pretend to be. My tip, don't read this book if you are hoping to lose yourself in a compelling story, because you might get bored. Read it if you are interested in learning about marriage - what it is and what it is not, why it sometimes works and why it sometimes doesn't - and are prepared to examine your own assumptions about this beautiful yet fraught concept. Also remember that this book contains Gilbert's personal thoughts, ideas, and fears about marriage, and that it's ok to disagree, for as this book teaches us, marriage is personal and individual to every couple, country and religion.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

When I walk into the mystery section of a bookstore, I usually find myself overwhelmed by the towering wall of what, in my eyes, looks like hundreds of very similar book covers. Knives moistened with blood, dark figures lurking in shadowed streets, and the faces of doleful looking girls encompass the majority of mystery books. The covers all seem so dark and depressing, making it very challenging for me to single one out. Growing up I had always enjoyed mysteries, whether it was reading a book for a book report in grade school, watching CSI into the late hours of the night, or solving riddles on a road trip, so it seems strange that I would have only read a handful of mystery books since the beginning of my introduction to literacy. And so, this week I decided to indulge myself in the twists and turns of a mystery book by reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the debut novel of Canadian writer Alan Bradley. One of the first things that caught my attention about this book was the cover, as is most often the case. It was not littered with disturbing images, but actually looked quite cheerful and inviting. It turned out to be a delightfully dark English mystery, featuring Flavia de Luce, a precocious young sleuth with an off-beat sense of humor and an inquiring mind, accompanied by her eccentric family. It was written with genuine originality, and is an extraordinary maze of mystery and intrigue, that will leave you with glorious anticipation until the last pages.

Bradley starts us off during the beginning of a lazy and ordinary summer in 1950, when a series of inexplicable events strike Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia’s family calls home. The de Luce's enjoyable mode of relaxed existence is interrupted when a dead jack snipe is found on the kitchen doorstep, with a rare postage stamp bizarrely impaled on its beak. Later that night, Flavia overhears her normally reserved and amicable father, arguing tempestuously with a stranger in is secluded study, and only mere hours later, finds a dying man in the cucumber patch. As she watches expectantly while he utters his last dying word, 'vale', she becomes both appalled and delighted. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.” To Flavia the investigation is the stuff of science: full of possibilities, contradictions, and connections.

Flavia is a wonderful creation, and makes for a highly engaging and memorable heroine, and I so loved being in her company this week. Her brilliance and mature inquisitive nature come together to make her a perfectly dexterous sleuth, while her ongoing rivalry with her older sisters, and sufficient childish quirks, reminds us that she is still a somewhat normal eleven year old girl. For me, she is a mix of Harriet the Spy's curious and mischievous personality, as well as Harry Potter's Hermione Granger's perspicacious and resourceful tendencies. Flavia is quick-witted, speaking often with smilies and analogies, making her a relatable character for readers of any age.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie provides us with a richly imagined, and luscious new world. The descriptions of Bucksaw, the de Luce family, and their many friends and acquaintances are laid out effortlessly, and the ongoing clues and realizations keep you engaged and thinking from beginning to end. Bradley artfully includes historical trivia about science, music, and literature, and combined with a piercing depiction of class and society, are mixed perfectly together to provide a succulent and consuming novel.

It was easy to immerse myself in Flavia's world, and become ever so intrigued by the questions and mysteries at hand. Having only a week to read this book, I read it quick quickly, but I fear that I may have missed out on some of the joy of actively solving the puzzles alongside Flavia. As I mentioned earlier, I am fascinated with mysteries and riddles, and always strive to solve them, so I think next time I read a mystery book, I will take more time to carefully read and absorb all of the clues, giving myself the opportunity to come to my own conclusions about the outcome. And so lie's my tip for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, read it carefully, and allow the information to sink in and work itself out. Enjoy the challenge of actually thinking while reading, rather than just skimming over the words to get to the end. 


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

For some reason this weeks book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, kept catching my eye. I think it was probably the title that caught my attention first, I don't know that I have ever seen that many words on the cover of a book before. During my trip to Nashville I noticed it in several different airport bookstores and gift shops, and of course at home among the handful of bookstores I frequent, and so finally this week I decided to relish in it. The authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, have written a delightful, poignant novel, rich with historical details and wonderful characters that you come to love, and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit. Along the way it's littered with rich descriptions about love, war and the immeasurable sustenance to be found in good books and good friends. It is an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary.

This epistolary novel opens in 1946 when London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. Writer Juliet Ashton, a whimsical, intuitive heroine, is casting about, looking for her next book subject when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a man she’s never met, and a native of the island of Guernsey who has come across her name written inside a second hand book. As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, their fragile contact begins to grow, and she is soon drawn into the wonderfully eccentric world of this man, his friends, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives, eventually coming to know the brave and endearing people who survived the hardships. In addition to a fine story, this delightful book offers affirming messages about some of the most enduring forces in life—the power of the written word, the strength of the human spirit and the value of relationships, even unexpected ones.

In a world so vivid, populated with characters so utterly wonderful and enchanting, it was hard to imagine that they were not my real friends and neighbors. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society commemorates beautiful people who pass through our lives, and make us stronger during malevolent times. Shaffer's Guernsey characters step from the past, radiant with eccentricity and kindly humor. They are innocents who have seen and suffered, without allowing evil to penetrate the rind of decency that guards their humanity. It's a joy threading through the gentle humor of the islanders' stories, and a privilege to read about their small acts of heroism. The people of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society come together like milk and coffee, in order to survive the occupation. Grabbing hold of Shakespeare, Austen, and Bronte, The Society affirms the power of books to nourish people enduring hard times, and celebrates the power books have in bringing people together. "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive-- all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways. Shaffer's writing, with its delicately offbeat, self-deprecating stylishness, is exquisitely turned, bearing a clear debt to Jane Austen. She shows, in addition, an uncanny ability to evoke a nostalgic portrayal of an era, miming its manners and mannerisms - not only in the reminders of blitzed London but also in recreating a culture that reveres books.

I bought this book without even looking inside, so until I had read the first couple pages I had no idea that the book was made up entirely of letters. To be completely honest, when I came to this realization, I made an audible groan, and actually contemplated putting the book back on my shelf. I was very skeptical on how a story was supposed to form, and how characters and scenery was supposed to be revealed and imagined through the treasure that is description. It would have been easy to put the book down and move onto the next, but I'm so glad I didn't. For if I had, I would have never experienced the indescribably unique characters, lessons such as "I think you learn more if you're laughing at the same time.", and a new respect for epistolary novels.

When I was young, before I had my own e-mail account, and before Facebook and Skype were worldwide phenomenon's, my Dad, who lived in Vancouver, would write me letters. So often while walking up to the front door where the rusty mailbox perched, I would experience this great anticipation. Had the mail man brought me and my Dad a little closer today, by delivering the handwritten words of my Dad right to my doorstep? Everybody knows the pure joy of receiving a letter in the mail amongst the mundane and avoidable bills and fliers, and unfortunately this is a craft that is quickly fading, perhaps only recognizable in the older generations. The truth is, is that receiving a handwritten letter from a friend or loved one is much more meaningful that opening up an animated greeting card over an e-mail. And so my tip for this week, is write someone a letter. Allow your story, thoughts, and love be a gift. A letter is a beautiful way for your words to be remembered and cherished over time. I still have a keepsake box dedicated to all the letters my Dad wrote me over the years, and I'm so glad I have them to look back on and share with my family.

“ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Eat Pray Love

For years I have heard many reputable things about Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Eat Pray Love. A few years ago I actually read the first couple pages, then, sadly put it down, not yet being in a place, or age, where I could connect with the book. This week came time for me to try again. Eat Pray Love is Gilbert's irresistible, candid, and eloquent account of her pursuit of worldly pleasure, spiritual devotion, and what she really wanted out of life. Her sensuous and audacious spiritual odyssey is as deeply pleasurable as it is enlightening.

Around the time Elizabeth Gilbert turned thirty, she went through an early-onslaught midlife crisis. She had everything an educated, ambitious American woman was supposed to want: a husband, a house, a successful career. But instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed with panic, grief, and confusion. She was plagued with the despair of a tough divorce, a crushing depression, another failed love, and the eradication of everything she ever thought she was supposed to be.

To recover from all this, Gilbert took a radical step. In order to give herself the time and space to find out who she really was and what she really wanted, she got rid of her belongings, and undertook a yearlong journey around the world all alone. Eat Pray Love is the absorbing chronicle of that year. Her aim was to visit three places where she could examine one aspect of her own nature set against the backdrop of a culture that has traditionally done that one thing very well. In Rome, she studied the art of pleasure, learning to speak Italian and gaining the twenty-three happiest pounds of her life. Indulging in Italy's buffet of delights; the world's best pizza, free-flowing wine and dashing conversation partners, Gilbert consumes la dolce vita as spiritual succor. 'I came to Italy pinched and thin,' she writes, but soon fills out in waist and soul. India was for the art of devotion, and with the help of a native guru and a surprisingly wise cowboy from Texas, she embarked on four uninterrupted months of spiritual exploration, emulating the ways of yogis, while struggling to still her churning mind. In Bali, she studied the art of balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence. She became the pupil of an elderly medicine man, and also fell in love the best way, unexpectedly.

Eat Pray Love is an intensely articulate and moving memoir of self-discovery. It is about what can happen when you claim responsibility for your own contentment and stop trying to live in imitation of society’s ideals. "It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection." This is a line from Bhagavad Gita, ancient Indian Yogic text, that has continued to resound in my mind. What better way to go through life than stumbling yet laughing, clumsy yet excited, knowing that you are pursuing what truly makes you happy. That is perhaps the greatest lesson that was solidified through this book: do what makes you smile and thankful for life.

As each week, and book passes I begin to discover similarities between, people and subjects. I find it quite interesting, and love making the connections, ultimately finding a balance of what works for me. A few weeks ago I read The Happiness Project, one woman's journey to become happier through little and simple things she could do at home, for she could not leave her family for a year of self-realization through traveling. Gilbert's methodical travelogue of soul-searching and self-discovery is on the other end of that same spectrum. The Happiness Project and Eat Pray Love both come down to the same thing, happiness, they just get there in their own custom way. I love that I can take things from both of these books and personal journeys, and adapt them to fit my life.

"Yoga is the effort to experience one's divinity personally and then to hold on to that experience forever. Yoga is about self-mastery and the dedicated effort to haul your attention away from your endless brooding over the past and your nonstop worrying over the future so that you can seek, instead, a place of eternal presence from which you may regard yourself and and your surroundings with poise. Only from that point of even mindedness will the true nature of the world, and yourself, be revealed to you. true yogis, from their seat of equipoise, see all this world as an equal manifestation of God's creative energy-man, women, children, turnips, bedbugs, coral: it's all God in disguise. But the yogis believe a human life is a very special opportunity, because only in a human form and only with a human mind can God-realization ever occur. The turnips, the bedbugs, the coral- they never get a chance to find out who they really are. But we do have that chance."

Reading this book was like hearing the substantive journey recounted firsthand from a friend. It was brilliant and personal, rich in spiritual insight, filled with sorrow and a great sense of humor, told with wit and colloquial exuberance. Gilbert sustains a chatty, fully engaging conspiratorial tone, in the year's cultural and emotional tapestry, conveying rapture with infectious brio, recalling anguish with touching candor, as she details her exotic tableau with history, anecdote and impression. She is a captivating storyteller with a gift for enlivening metaphors, making it so easy to laugh and cry as she recounts her nervy and outlandish experiences, and profiles the extraordinary people she meets.

The first night I sat down with this books it was raining outside. I love everything about the rain, I suppose I always have. I have pictures of me growing up splashing in puddles and dancing in the streets with my bright yellow rubber boots on. The sound, the smell, the newness of the world around me after it subsides, I find it all so refreshing. Needless to say, I grabbed a blanket and opened the windows as far as they would go. It was the absolute perfect moment to begin a book about personal happiness. I Admit that I lucked out being able to start off Eat Pray Love amidst one of my favorite weather circumstances, but my tip is to find a place where you can connect with nature and beauty, even in a small way, while reading this book. Find a bench in a sweet and voluptuous garden, or a patch of grass and shade amongst sturdy everlasting trees. Wiggle your toes in the sand of a calm beach or sit by your favorite fountain or landmark, whatever and wherever it is, just read this book there. It will be that much more meaningful, and will probably make a much deeper and everlasting impression.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's quietly powerful novel, The Kite Runner, fulfills the promise of fiction, awakening curiosity about the world around us, speaking truth as the lessons of history echo down the years, and tells a story of fierce cruelty and intense yet redeeming love. The themes are universal: familial relationships, particularly father and son; the price of disloyalty; the inhumanity of a rigid class system; and the horrific realities of war. The Story is told with sentimental power and sturdy storytelling, along with fits of clumsy melodrama, and the combination will make this book a fundamental part of your library.

In Afghanistan, young Amir's earliest memories of life in Kabul are blessed with a cultural heritage that values tradition, blood ties and a deeply rooted cultural identity. Upper class Pashtuns, Amir enjoys the luxury of education, material comfort and a constant playmate, the son of his father's longtime Hazara servant, Hassan. Twice in his lifetime Amir is morally tested in his relationship with Hassan. The first time, a victim of his own arrogance, Amir fails his companion. Hiding behind the superiority of class, Amir chooses the path of least resistance, but the scar of betrayal cuts through his soul and never heals. That first failure dictates Amir's inner dialogue throughout his life, even in America, until he is offered another chance at personal redemption. Returned to his homeland at the request of an old family friend, the second challenge is equally perilous, and Amir recognizes the very real implications of his decision.

Against this stark landscape, the adult Amir is challenged as never before, charged with the protection of a young life already scarred by the random violence visited upon the disenfranchised. With inordinate compassion and stunning simplicity, Hosseini portrays Amir's impossible dilemma. Complications abound, but the answer lies in humanity's capacity for kindness. The grace of acceptance heals the wounds of brutality, for with forgiveness anything is possible, even the wild joy of soaring kites against a winter sky.

The Kite Runner serves as a powerful depiction of pre-revolutionary Afghanistan..With cities that are rich in warmth and humor, streets that are framed with divine, luscious trees, and air that is laced with the fragrance of fresh lamb and naan bread, It is a place a pure joy and beauty. As time passes, however, so does Afghanistan. It becomes a place decimated by constant warfare. The streets are lined with beggars and fatherless children, whose future is marginalized by poverty: "There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood." There are no longer people bustling through the fresh market, or hosting grand celebrations, even the trees have given up, and become bleak and flowerless. Hosseini gives us a vivid and engaging story that reminds us how long his people have been struggling to triumph over the forces of violence -- forces that continue to threaten them even today.

The Kite Runner isn't subtle, but it allows us to see a country and a culture from the inside: it puts a human face on a tragedy most of us know only from headlines and glimpses on the nightly news. The pages are full of haunting images: a man, desperate to feed his children, trying to sell his artificial leg in the market; an adulterous couple stoned to death in a stadium during the halftime of a football match; a rouged young boy forced into prostitution, dancing the sort of steps once performed by an organ grinder's monkey. However grotesque the facts might be, they also serve to make the story beautiful. They provide us a true understanding of a people and a culture that we may never be a part of. They stir up compassion and empathy towards people on the other side of the world, and that, I think, is a beautiful thing.

For years I have been hearing great things about The Kite Runner, and for some reason, it is only now that I am picking it up for the first time. Honestly, I think it took so long because I thought that I would not be interested in a Book based out of the Middle East. I have never been particularly drawn to the culture, or even the blueprint of the land and scenery, but I found myself easily reading this book, curled up on my couch, while my husband played guitar, for hours on end. If this book has taught me anything it is "don't judge a book by it's cover". I know, we have all heard this saying most of our educated lives, but it's true. I was pre-judging this book on the setting, but it turned out to be a phenomenal book, going much deeper into the beauty and struggles of humanity than I initially gave it credit for. My hope for myself is that I can remember this truth, and open myself up to reading about different places and people, with the honest intention of learning about them. Thinking about this, I am actually reminded of a quote from a Michael Franti song, "...the more I see, the less I know...". Sometimes we get caught up in our own culture, and the things and people that immediately surround us, but once we start to venture out, we begin to realize that there is so much more out there to learn and discover. I personally think that this is amazing, and I am optimistic that I will allow myself to be shaped not only by my family, and home, but by other people and places that I will encounter on this journey called life.

Not only in the Middle East, but all over the world, there are fatherless children, doing their best to survive in a world no child should have to suffer in. Eating dirt, hoping for some small trace of nutrition, and walking countless miles, just to get water, these are the children that need our help. Not all of us are able to adopt a child in need, but we can find easily find a sponsorship program. And so my tip for this book is, sponsor a child, and help them obtain the most basic and fundamental necessities of life.