Monday, June 29, 2015

Nonfiction | How to Be Happy, in 22 Easy Steps!

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The Read Harder Challenge lists a "self-improvement" book as one of its categories. Erm, self-help? Not really my cup of tea. Self-reflection is great and all, but I'm certain there are more theories on how to live than there are people who are living. When it comes to advice, everyone's got an opinion. How can one generic way of living work for everyone when we are all so uniquely individual?

I understand that is probably not the point of self-help books. I understand the advice shared by all these "expert" authors is adaptable and may not be 100% applicable to every life. But, I still just try and figure things out for myself and base my life's direction on experience or the experiences of my nearest and dearest. I thought the quest for a book to fit this category would be difficult, but I was pleasantly surprised in stumbling upon Linda Leaming's A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up.

Happiness is probably the number one thing I strive for—the attribute at the top of my "values" list. The same apparently goes for Linda Leaming. She pared down her cluttered, stressful, American life and embraced a rugged, simplistic one up in the Himalayas. In Bhutan, there is less stuff, fewer stressors, and a general positive vibe; it is the place, after all, that puts a higher premium on its Gross National Happiness than its Gross National Product.

Leaming shares with the reader 22 short snippets of advice—the answers she has found through her experiences in Bhutan that will, if followed, leave us healthy, relaxed, and appreciative. Ultimately, these things are necessary for happiness! Simple formula, yes? 

The author's list spawns from experience and is shared through anecdotes. The inefficiency (by American standards) of bank transactions forced the author to "Calm Down;" "Kindness Will Save Us" and our patience when dealing with customer service during infuriating situations; additional contributions from strangers in a store after purchasing a homeless man clothing proves that "Generosity is Contagious." 

The good thing about Leaming's advice is that it's not so much a specific way of doing things; each chapter highlights a small shift in thinking that Leaming believes will balance one's mental state and lead to a happier state of being. It's clear her experiences in Bhutan were real eye openers. To be out of one's comfort zone and away from the usual way of doing things—whether it be in a new office environment or overseas in an entirely different culture—is to experience life with fresh eyes; it often takes such a jolt to recognize those norms we take for granted. While Leaming's advice is based on the lifestyle differences she noticed living in Bhutan, ones deeply tied to the country's Buddhist mindset, they are universal. Once recognized, you can take them anywhere.

I have to say, I really enjoyed this jaunt into the "self-help" realm. I've found myself referring to the counsel Leaming preaches, not only in my own musings but in real-life situations that have arisen. I imagine a cynic could read this as an ostentatious statement on how we're all "doing it wrong" over here in Western culture, but that angle is one of arrogance (Chapter 21: "Check Your Ego"). The whole point of this book is that we can learn from each other, our neighbors near and far. And if we remove ourselves, however temporarily, from our normal way of thinking, we may discover something new that can change us for the better.

Other than the small pieces of advice I briefly mentioned above, I decided to jot down my biggest takeaways, because great power lies in awareness. (And maybe if they're summarized, they'll be easier to remember.)

Kari's Abbreviated Guide to Happiness:
  1. Think about the unthinkable; embrace your fears and move beyond them.
  2. Never stop; let it flow.
  3. Embrace equanimity; move to the middle path.
  4. Wake up; see things as they really are.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 6

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Despite their wildly different format, these three books from our city-wide Battle of the Books list each tell the story of boys who are growing up, gaining a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. Potentially enjoyed by all, but especially geared towards a male audience!

Title: The Dumbest Idea Ever
Author: Jimmy Gownley
Genre: Graphic Novel, Memoir
Read If You Like...: A flawed protagonist, underdog stories, and realistic boy humor
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Thirteen-year-old Jimmy is rockin' middle school until a bout of the chicken pox and pneumonia forces him to miss his championship basketball game. Everything—his academic and social life—goes in a downward spiral after that, but a burgeoning love of comic books may be just the thing that saves him from teenage disaster. This humorous story of how Jimmy went from basketball star to comic book artist will especially appeal to boys.

Title: The Madman of Piney Woods
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Genre: Historical Fiction
Read If You Like...: Adventure tales, unlikely duos, and heartfelt friendships
Three-Sentence Thoughts: A chance encounter between Benji and Red, two exceedingly different boys, leads to an adventure neither of them could have expected. The two are on a mission to discover the true story behind the "Madman of Piney Woods," but the real story is in their growing friendship despite very different lives. This story is a good reminder of the various issues that have affected different groups of people throughout history and how people are often more similar than different.

Title: The Crossover
Author: Kwame Alexander
Genre: Sports (Realistic), Poetry
Read If You Like...: Stories about siblings, competitive sports, and the magic of words
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Josh and Jordan are twins that have always been a duo on the court and off, but Josh is starting to notice that things are changing...and he may not be ready for it. Jordan is chasing girls and crushing it on the court, and Josh is just trying to deal with feeling like second fiddle. Beautifully told through a creative verse format, The Crossover broaches significant subject matter with considerable style—highly appealing to the most reluctant of boy readers.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Nonfiction | Hodgepodged Humor from a Comedy Queen

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Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Category: An audiobook

The Read Harder challenge I am undertaking (ha, remember that? Back in February??) lists an audiobook as one of its categories. Frankly, I'm not really an audiobook fan. The couple that I've listened to have just bored me stiff; I keep thinking, "I could be reading this myself WAY faster," and I generally end up falling asleep. I know, I know... It just means I'm not the greatest listener, and I fully admit that. It requires practice, and I'll work on that.

For this challenge, though, I figured that I'd better at least choose an audiobook with an interesting narrator (because I know that can make or break it), so Amy Poehler's Yes Please, narrated by the author herself, seemed like the perfect choice.

Yes Please is diverse little book. It's sort of like a memoir, mixed with some grand advice, peppered with humorous lists, and with a few guest authors (and narrators) thrown in. She covers her first forays into acting and improv, details how to apologize from your heart instead of your ego, chronicles the drastic changes parenthood brings to life (including an especially funny letter about a birth plan), recollects favorite career moments, and offers sound advice for aging—among other things. Of course, because it's Poehler, it's all generally told with a sense of humor, but it never feels like it was written just to be funny. It's a little bit all over the place, so it's hard, ultimately, to see what exactly its purpose is. It's like she was presented with the opportunity to write to a mass audience...and this book is the hodgepodge result of all the things she wanted to say. Is it comedy? Is it a memoir? Is it self-help? Does it matter?

I'm still up in the air as to whether the audiobook made my experience with this book better or worse. On the one hand, I love Poehler on the stage (err, screen). I love her as a performer, so there's a good chance that hearing her talk was going to entertain me. Plus, the smorgasbord format of this book also lent itself to a very casual narration that was really enhanced by special guests. On the other hand, I've shared how quickly memoirs are falling out of my favor...and at times I was a little bit squeamish just hearing the author talk about herself. But, there's a good chance that's just me and my extreme tendency towards self-effacement. [It hits that same nerve as watching a talent show; it just makes me so uncomfortable.]

The hard part of listening to an audiobook for me, a visual learner, is that I can't make the physical references to words on a page—and if there's a part I want to remember, it's much harder to make it stick because I don't know where to go back for a second look. [Interesting note, though: I listened to half of this while running, and I could remember where exactly on the trail I was at certain spots in the narration. Fascinating new kind of mental referencing.]

Anyway, here is the takeaway that I remembered to come back and find online because I thought it was a good nugget to keep.

Advice from the future 90-year-old Amy Poehler to her current self:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 5

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Title: Revolution
Author: Deborah Wiles
Genre: Historical fiction
Read If You Like...: Stories told from various perspectives, narratives on the Civil Rights movement, books with a unique format
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Revolution tells the story of Freedom Summer as hundreds of people flood the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1964 to help register voters, and to twelve-year-old Sunny, these "invaders" just add chaos to her already crazy life with a new step-mom and siblings. When a chance encounter pitches Sunny to the forefront of small-town race relations, she shows the reader what it's like to finally understand what's happening around you and how it's not always easy to stand up for what's right. This story shares an important moment in history using a creative format of text and image that can be highly impactful to the right reader.

Title: Dangerous
Author: Shannon Hale
Genre: Sci-fi
Read If You Like...: Quick-paced action stories, superhero squads, and sci-fi space odysseys
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Science-nerd Maisie's dream comes true when she wins a trip to Astronaut Camp from a cereal box contest. Unfortunately, camp gets more complicated when Maisie's team unintentionally absorbs alien superpowers and find themselves in grave danger--both from these alien parasites and the bad guys trying to take these powers for themselves. I found this book just TOO ABSURDLY RIDICULOUS to follow with any level of enjoyment, but several boys at my school were I guess it does have an audience.

Title: Loot
Author: Jude Watson
Genre: Action/Adventure
Read If You Like...: Ocean's 11-esque adventures, international capers, stories about kids leading lives that seem much more adult than adolescent
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Loot opens like an old Hitchcock movie (think To Catch a Thief...) as a notorious jewel thief falls from a rooftop and imparts some cryptic dying words to the person below. That person just happened to be his son, March, who then embarks on his own adventurous heist, following his father's clues, where the outcome is either riches and freedom or certain death. An often-funny, entertaining read with enjoyable characters that will surely keep kids wrapped up in the adventure.