On my Nightstand #4

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I am so glad that this is a short work-week (well, a 4-day week as opposed to a 5-day week). Work has been more insane, if that's possible. I almost feel like I need to put in more hours this week just to be on top of things. This weekend cannot come soon enough, and I can only hope that I won't be bringing work into my weekend.

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows: I picked this book solely on the merit of this author's co-authorship in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I'm only four chapters in, but I can say with plenty of confidence that this book is going to be a favorite. It has the same charming voice as Guernsey, the characters are very likable and the writing is quirky and fun to read. I'm not too sure yet what the book is supposed to be about but it doesn't matter - the book is fun and the writing is easy to get lost in.
Evoking the same small town charm with the same great eye for character, the co-author of Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society finds her own voice in this debut novel about a young debutante working for the Federal Writer's Project whose arrival in Macedonia, West Virginia changes the course of history for a prominent family who has been sitting on a secret for decades. The Romeyn family is a fixture in the town, their identity tied to its knotty history. Layla enters their lives and lights a match to the family veneer and a truth comes to light that will change each of their lives forever.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In was actually a book I was determined not to read. I don't even remember why but I think it has something to do with some misinformation about the book. I started reading this one this past weekend and love it so far. Sheryl Sandberg shares some of her experiences being a mostly lone woman at the top of the corporate ladder and how, many times, her gender had come in the way of her career aspirations. I have heard many readers say that while this book was a good read, they couldn't relate to it since Sandberg wrote from the perspective of someone working in a corporate company. I think that is possibly true (I would like to finish the book before attesting to that) but I find that I can relate very well with her because I work in a corporate company as well.
Lean In grew out of an electrifying TED talk Sandberg gave in 2010, in which she expressed her concern that progress for women in achieving major leadership positions had stalled. The talk became a phenomenon and has since been viewed nearly two million times. In Lean In, she fuses humorous personal anecdotes, singular lessons on confidence and leadership, and practical advice for women based on research, data, her own experiences, and the experiences of other women of all ages.

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin: Lately (ever since I attended my childbirth class), I have been toying with the idea of a natural childbirth. Prior to that, I was definite that I was going to need an epidural and a natural childbirth was just not something I wanted to think about. But after watching tons of videos and reading plenty of birth stories, I am not as scared of childbirth as I was previously. (Information certainly helps!) I borrowed this book from the library just to boost my motivation to attempt a natural childbirth as much as I can and take the epidural only if all fails. This book is split into two parts - the first is full of birth stories and the second is home to plenty of facts and information. Right now, I am still in the first section and enjoying reading through the stories.
Drawing upon her thirty-plus years of experience, Ina May Gaskin shares the benefits and joys of natural childbirth by showing women how to trust in the ancient wisdom of their bodies for a healthy and fulfilling birthing experience. Based on the female-centered Midwifery Model of Care, Ina May’s Guide to Natural Childbirth gives expectant mothers comprehensive information on everything from the all-important mind-body connection to how to give birth without technological intervention. Ina May’s Guide to Natural Childbirth takes the fear out of childbirth by restoring women’s faith in their own natural power to give birth with more ease, less pain, and less medical intervention.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dept. of Speculation
People keep telling me to do yoga. I tried it once at the place down the street. The only part I liked was the part at the end when the teacher covered you with a blanket and you got to pretend you were dead for ten minutes.

Dept. of Speculation was on my wishlist on the merit of the many positive reviews I read about it. This wasn't a much hyped book, just a book that seemed to silently win many fans. If you had asked me what I knew about the book before I started reading it, I could tell you nothing. So it wasn't a surprise when I started reading it that I was more shocked than enamored by the format of the book.

The book is full of mostly 3-4 line long paragraphs, each dealing with distinct ideas, thoughts, facts, or experiences. This book is what your Twitter feed could look like if you made a book containing all your tweets. Context is limited to each passage and it will be a while before you get a feel for the person behind the passage. This is also a difficult book to read in multiple sittings. If you can get through it in one sitting, you will probably be rewarded the most. (I finished it in two sittings.)

Did I manage to turn you away from this book by now? I may also have not read it if someone introduced me to it the same way.

Would you believe I loved this book by the end?

Dept. of Speculation is a book about many things - love, marriage and its decline, raising a child, mid-life crisis, stalling of ambitions - but it is mainly about dissatisfaction - about marriage, being a mother, and not having something to live for. It could have been just like any other book dealing with these themes, but the format Offill goes for - a string of thoughts from beginning to end - makes this book unique. Rather than trying to set the backdrop in a straightforward way as is the case in most books, she lets these thoughts paint a picture of a woman who is very disappointed with her life. And it works - very well! It just took a couple of chapters before I could actually get a strong foothold in this story.

Honestly, I don't want to say much about this book. Experiencing this book is the best way to really feel it. It's even hard to explain much about this book. After I finished a few chapters, I felt the need to put it down and read it when I had a huge block of uninterrupted reading time. Even though each passage in this book is distinct enough, they are really related in a way that isn't obvious initially - they are all trying to describe a person, a person who doesn't feel the need to start with a preamble "I am xyz and I have been married for so-many years, and I have this problem lately..." She takes you on a ride right from the first paragraph and if you don't have your distractions put away and your feet pulled up into your armchair, you aren't going to be able to appreciate it well. Even though this woman isn't exactly in high spirits, the book isn't all doom and gloom. There is plenty of humor and wisdom in it. This is also a very quick and fast read and hard to put down.

The wonderful Care at Care's Online Book Club sent me this book.

The Sunday Salon: Memorial Day reads

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Sunday 

Happy Memorial Day in advance to my US readers! Hope you are having a good long weekend.

This week (and weekend)...

I spent much of this week waiting for the weekend. Not that we (or rather I) had any major plans for the weekend. The husband's friend is visiting us right now and the two of them have plenty of plans lined up - they visited the Natural Bridge, Caverns, and Zoo yesterday and came home super tired and happy. I did nothing but read, but I promise I felt more tired than they did. Today they are planning to visit Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns, and tomorrow, take part in an archery session at Wintergreen resort, which I plan to do as well.

Three days back, I stretched my legs when I woke up in the morning and instantly cramped both my calves. I have no idea where that came from and I've been mostly penguin-limping since then. The cramps have reduced a LOT today so I hope they're on the way out. At this point (33 weeks), I am pretty close to being done with being pregnant - only close, I still love every minute of this journey, even if it means I cannot hike or walk too much or be anywhere that doesn't have a restroom. But this week has been tough - sleeping is hard, trying to sleep is hard, walking is hard, having energy to do anything at all is hard. More reason to love having a stay-at-home weekend for myself.


On the plus side, I have been reading a lot. I spent a good chunk of yesterday reading (and finishing) and loving A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I usually enjoy multiple narrator novels, as long as the number of narrators is under five. Goon Squad has 13 chapters and 15 narrators. That in itself is challenging under any circumstance and I wasn't sure I will enjoy it. But Egan makes it work so well that I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the format.

Then I went back to Flowers for Algernon, of which I have just a quarter more left. I know the remainder of the book is going to be a tough read but I am bracing myself for it. On the other hand, I am a little bothered by the portrayal of women in this book - they just have no substance to their character, all they exist for is to propel the protagonist's story forward.

Last week, I also went and picked up Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In from my library. When I checked my library catalog, I was surprised to see that they had a lot of copies available, but most of them were checked out and expected to be returned on the same day next month. Turns out, my library's book club is reading it this month. I would love to go join the discussions but I don't expect my next few weeks to be that free. I did start reading Lean In, and so far enjoy the voice of the author.

This weekend is unexpectedly turning into a readathon weekend. This morning, I decided to just read for much of this weekend and not do any chores. After Algernon, I am thinking of reading Annie Barrows' The Truth According to Us. You may remember Annie Barrows as the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Unlike the latter book, The Truth According to Us is a chunkster but luckily, I have it in both ebook and print format so that should make for a quicker reading.

How is your weekend going? I hope you have plenty planned as well - reading and otherwise. Are any of you going to BEA this week?

From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess by Meg Cabot

Thursday, May 21, 2015

From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess
"The first thing you'll have to learn, Olivia, if you're going to get this princess thing right, is how to take a compliment. When someone says something nice to you, don't put yourself down. Just say 'thank you.' Try it."

I am a big fan of the Princess Diaries series. I haven't read all the books yet but I did watch both the movies and loved them. I am not much of a girly girl or someone who loves princesses but I do enjoy reading about rags to riches stories, especially when they involve some kind of royalty. Yep, I am a sucker for such stories.

So I was delighted to see this book arrive at my doorstep sometime last month. This is the first (and currently only) book in this Middle School Princess series, but it ties up very closely with the original Princess Diaries storyline.

Olivia was brought up by her aunt's family after her mother died. Her father still sent her letters but she hadn't met him so she didn't really remember how he looked. The Princess of Genovia, Mia Thermopolis, arrives at her school one day and that's when she learns the truth - that she is Mia's half-sister, and that her mother didn't want her to grow up in the eyes of the public which is why she didn't learn about this sooner. She soon gets to meet her Grandmere and father and is totally glad to have found her real family.

But her aunt's family, who has custody of Olivia, isn't that willing to hand her over to the royals. On top of trouble with her foster family, Olivia is receiving serious flak from a classmate who hates the fact that Olivia is a royal now and therefore at the top of the middle school totem pole.

I always think I should read more middle grade books but I never seem to. Middle grade books have something in them that always wins me over - something that YA books fail to do most times. From the Notebooks of a Middle School Princess was no exception. It was cute, with a very down-to-earth character who doesn't just take her new-found status for granted and stop caring about her principles or her friends. I am not sure that real 12-year olds won't swoon with excitement if they find out that they are related to a royal family member - I know I would have been beside myself at that age. Olivia even confesses that it seems better when it's happening to other people than when it's happening to you when her friend asks her how she feels after finding out that she is a princess.

Something I loved a lot was the diversity in this book. Olivia's mother is African American and her best friend is Indian. It was nice to see some demographic color. I did wish that there was more background on Olivia's mom - maybe that shows up in some other book? Overall though, I was charmed. This was a cute and charming read and definitely a book that Princess Diaries fans shouldn't miss.

I received this book for free for free from the publisher.

Flowers for Algernon (Halfway thoughts) #MayFFA

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

There's very little I knew about Flowers for Algernon before I started it. I had heard about this book a lot without really registering what it was about. And then, when I was browsing through a bookstore, I saw this book on the science fiction shelves, decided it will be a good read for the husband, decided further that it will be a good read for me as well, then (and only then) did a quick glance of the synopsis to make sure it wasn't scifi erotica before buying it.

It probably would have stayed in my bookshelves for a long time, if Care didn't suggest doing a readalong (thank you, Care!).

This past weekend, I just stopped at the halfway point in the book and decided I need to type up this post before I continued reading it.
I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.

What I thought the book was about...

I thought this book was about some kind of experiment gone wrong, in a weird Frankenstein-ish way. It was in the science fiction section after all. The husband prefers books that are plot-oriented. Stuff should keep happening, if not in every page, then in every other page. That's what I imagined this book to be.

What this book really was like...

Sure, stuff happens. But slowly. Gradually. You need to look for the changes. If you read it without really absorbing what you are reading, Charlie grows up right before your eyes and you won't know the difference. But this book is more about
  • how people treat mentally challenged people, 
  • how you could be building a cure for something but deep in your heart, you aren't concerned about the people who could benefit from the cure, but rather you are just worried about your own ego and reputation.

First, a brief summary...

Charlie is a mentally challenged 32-year old who was selected to be the human guinea pig for a very ambitious experiment, which had previously been tested only on animals of lesser intelligence. In fact, the only animal they constantly mention is Algernon, a white mouse, who transformed from its usual mousely abilities to a kind of supermouse that could solve mazes very quickly.

Charlie happens to want very badly to be smart - a result of childhood neglect and trauma. During his childhood, his mother refused to believe that Charlie needed special care and instead drove him to great lengths that only resulted in a lot of heartbreak and tears for all involved.
Its easy to make frends if you let pepul laff at you.

Halfway Point Thoughts (some spoilers follow)...

Flowers for Algernon is essentially an epistolary novel, with Charlie writing (almost) daily reports on his thoughts, fears, anticipations, and experiences. His posts before the treatment and a few after, are drizzled with poor grammer, spelling mistakes, and overall poor sentence contructions. But more notably, these reports are also peppered with a very naive and optimistic perception of the world he inhabits. He considers his colleagues to be very good friends of his, even though all they do is mock him consistently and make him the scapegoat of mean jokes.

Honestly, at the halfway point, I am a little torn about what I feel for Charlie. Charlie is really the epitome of many kinds of people in this world. He starts off naive and innocent, like a child eager to please his elders. He doesn't question others' motivations or suspect anyone of not being a good person. As he begins to get smarter, he is an enthusiastic student, excited to learn and interact with everyone on a more adult-level. But his intelligence keeps growing - it hasn't yet tapered off. He has gone from an IQ of 68 to one of 185. At this point, he has become more arrogant and condescending. He looks down on all experts because they only really know a part of their field well and don't share his knowledge of an entire huge field. He is even more ashamed that the people who were treating him aren't as knowledgeable as he once thought them to be.

It's amazing how the author can make you feel ambivalent (within the span of a few pages) about a first-person narrator who isn't really being nasty and who has suffered enough. I believe Daniel Keyes wanted readers to not identify with Charlie but with his associates - the now-lesser intelligent people.

Because of how Charlie's posts transition from something akin to being written by a child to one that could be written by a Professor, my reading pace also followed that change. It was very easy to read his posts at first, then it got more thought-provoking and finally a little hard (though not very hard - it's still a fast-paced book). By the halfway point, it doesn't make sense to just breeze through the pages. Charlie's thought processes are very intense and he catches on to facts very fast.

While his IQ has been going off the charts, his emotional quotient has been poor. He has not been able to mature fast enough to understand everything he is learning. His people-interactions remain limited - he is like an adolescent trapped in a highly intelligent body. He doesn't know how to interact with women or understand why people have different intelligence levels, despite he himself being a little poor on the smartness scale only a few months back.
How strange it is that people of honest feelings and sensibility, who would not take advantage of a man born without arms or legs or eyes—how such people think nothing of abusing a man with low intelligence.

I cannot wait to go back to the book. The Introduction in my copy pretty much gives away what happens, so I am somewhat bummed by that. (Spoilery Introductions should be at the end of the book not the beginning - not everyone has read these classics in school.) But it's still a riveting book. Funnily, throughout this book, I was strongly reminded of The Curiosity by Stephen Kiernan, which tried to share some pretty much similar themes.