Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

Do you ever worry about not being happy enough? Gretchen Rubin wasn't especially unhappy, but she thought that maybe she could do better. So she made a lot of lists, and charts, and amassed a ton of books, and set about upping her happiness quotient.

I love that she was so task-oriented in tackling this project: maybe more people would experience greater happiness if they stopped thinking about it and just attacked the problem head-on! Super un-Buddhist, I know, but very American. I'm willing to bet that most of us don't have the kind of energy and single-minded focus that Ms. Rubin does, so it's nice that she's done a lot of the work already.

The book is divided into months; each month is devoted to a different area of life. January is all about finding more energy, since a year-long happiness project is sort of a marathon. Other months include improving her (already pretty great) marriage, becoming a better parent, learning new skills; the list goes on. Each month she sets herself a series of tasks to help accomplish her goals. You can see the straight-A law student in Gretchen; she's got axioms, a bibliography, theses, proofs, conclusions. She's even got an extremely comprehensive website devoted to the project, with a whole toolkit you can use to blaze your own trail to happiness. What this woman gets done before breakfast every day boggles the mind.

Here are a few of the things the author learned from her experiences that ring true to me - and I only had to spend a few days reading to glean them!

1. You like what you like, and it won't make you remotely happy to spend your time doing things you wish you liked.

2. Thinking about being happy leads to being... happy.

3. Acting happy makes life more bearable, even when it isn't actually enjoyable.

4. All that crap you tell your kids really is true: if you don't have anything nice to say, shut the hell up; you don't have to like it, you just have to do it without complaining; you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (okay, no one really uses this old chestnut any more, but it sounds better than the way we currently express this idea).

Here is another thing I really liked about this book: The author is very happy to admit to her own shortcomings. This keeps the reader from feeling envious of her and her happiness. I mean, who wouldn't like to have an entire year to devote to being happy? It's hard not to feel a little jealous of a woman who seems to have it all, and then gets to devote her life to being happier. Although the project does, in her estimation, increase her levels of joy and fulfillment, she's not completely transformed into an incontestably amazing wife and mother with a perfect yoga body and unshakable inner peace. She still has bad days, and bad habits. She is happier, because she's concentrating on being happier, which kind of indicates that a modicum of effort can have a real and positive affect. Even if you have to work at a real job.

Finally, and most importantly to me, how does this woman manage to read so many books? I know it's part of her job, but still, the rate at which she plows through them is incredible, and enviable. My very own happiness project might easily be derailed by giving in to the desire to do nothing but sit around reading all day.

Visit The Happiness Project website for lots of ideas about bettering your life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

The title says it all....

Well, not really, but you've got to love an author who puts the main event right there on the cover. It's as though Paul Murray just wants to be clear, right up front, that this is what is going to happen. It won't be the end of the story, but it will be a very important factor, and we might as well just get it out there on the table from the outset.

This book is much longer than I realized, being printed on extremely thin paper, and set in very small print. My copy is 660 pages. In this respect it is physically and thematically similar: the story doesn't seem as though it is going to touch on quite so many truths, from quite so many different angles.

To wit: Seabrook is a traditional Irish Catholic boys' school, running full frontal into the 21st century. There is a varied cast of characters: a disappointed futures-trader-turned-history teacher, a boy genius, an altruistic priest, a beautiful girl, a thug, an ambitious administrator, a swimming coach, and many others, all, it seems, with secrets. And of course there's Skippy, who has at least two gigantic secrets.

The story takes place over the course of an academic year. People fall in love, people cheat, restrain themselves, plan clandestine scientific explorations, sneak into the neighboring girls' school, deal and take drugs - the usual school stuff. There is complicated science, and crass pornography, and 19th century poetry. And somehow it all ties in, connects, reflects endlessly.

The most amazing thing about this book is how deeply the reader falls into the lives of the characters. There is a metaphorical hall of mirrors at Seabrook, with each succeeding generation experiencing the same epiphanies, and false starts. They're coming at life from from different angles, but somehow it's all  the same. They're trapped in that hall, inevitably bumping into their distorted reflections, and mistaking them for reality. The themes of impotence, regret and futility are wound around one another, always present but never obvious. Most of the inhabitants of Seabrook are adolecents, and they have that terrible and misguided sense that what is happening at any one moment is the truth.

Did I mention that this book is also really funny? It is. And despite the fact that it took me way longer than I had imagined to get to the last page, I was kind of heartbroken at having to finish. The word I keep thinking of is engaging; the characters are just barely eccentric, the dialogue is always spot-on and hilarious, the many little subplots and interstices and wild imaginings hold your attention just perfectly.One of my very favorite books of the year, thus far.

You can hear all about Paul Murray's life, writing and literary tastes in the Powell's interview.

Jess Walter reviews Paul Murray. What's (slightly) better than reading a great book? Reading another's author's take on it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Half a Life, by Darin Strauss

I first heard Darin Strauss on This American Life, telling this story. I found it so intensely moving that I listened to it again in its entirety. In short: at the age of 18 Darin hit and killed a 16 year old girl, she on a bike, he in a car. No one blames him, it wasn't his fault. This, of course, hasn't stopped him from feeling guilty, and feeling guilty about feeling guilty, for half his life.

The accident itself was not so very huge - the car didn't suffer any damage past a cracked windshield, and none of its occupants were hurt. Despite the sad outcome, it's the kind of event that you'd read about and then pretty quickly forget. Unless, of course, you happen to be the one in the driver's seat. In which case it colors everything you do for years, maybe forever.

Strauss says in this book that had this episode never occurred, he may not have become a writer. Which is hard to imagine. I kept thinking that another, less introspective person might not have spent so very much time obsessing over his every reaction to the pivotal event in his life; he's not sad enough, he's selfishly sad, he's not demonstrative enough, he's faking it. This is probably naive of me. Probably the truth is really that not everyone in this situation would do such a good job of describing his feelings.
Somewhere in the midst of the story, I realized that this book is not a memoir of Darin Strauss' whole life, but more a very close look at the lens through which he's lived his life. He doesn't tell us about the many times he didn't think about Celine, because that's not the point of this story.

It's hard to imagine living with the weight of having accidentally taken some one's life. This small book serves as a reminder that life can change on a dime; a moment can stretch into eternity. I really recommend listening to Darin tell the story, here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Another NPR book list!

I'm a sucker for book lists. I can't stop myself from browsing them, admittedly in part to see how many of the titles I've read. NPR just published another one of their readers' choice lists: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books. I was surprised to find that I've read 25 or so - depending on whether you count a couple of series I've abandoned after a book or two. This isn't really what I think of as my genre, but it does include books I wouldn't have thought to put in this category, like Watership Down, The Time Traveler's Wife, and The Handmaid's Tale. I won't get into a discussion of just what constitutes fantasy, because I think that subject has been exhaustively argued by more passionate fans already. It just makes me happy to pretend that I have eclectic taste, after all.