Unfocused Reading: The Book Review List

During my year off from writing, I did try to keep up with my reading. One chapter or 25 pages a day, whichever felt easier at that particular moment. If writing is my passion, reading is the fuel that keeps that flame alive. I remember reading somewhere about the strong correlation between reading and one’s writing ability. And while I do strongly believe in that connection, I also believe that reading is the gateway to one’s emotional and mental expansion.

Reading, and specifically reading multiple forms and genres of literature, allows you to move between cultures, exercise your imagination, and cultivates empathy. It forces you into seeing things from another person’s, the author’s or the protagonist’s, perspective.

Now, I wasn’t always successful when it came to reading every day. I am, unfortunately, a creature of comfort—and comfortable reading means uninterrupted reading. Also, I have a tendency to read multiple books at the same time. I suppose it’s the very same lack of focus that’s hounded me from childhood and continues to affect me today. At the moment, I’m currently reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Maria Arana’s and The Washington Post’s The Writing Life, Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. As for my active rereads, that would be Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project.

Suffice to say, my unfinished stack of books is prominently bigger than the ‘done’ pile. Besides, a book review requires a thorough rereading. The first time I read a book, I read for pleasure. The second time, for insight. Now, I’ve met many people, very intelligent and voracious readers, who never reread their books. But for me, rereading is an oddly and immensely comforting activity. It’s like spending time with an old and trusty friend who rarely ever disappoints.

Obviously, I’ve gone way off track here. Let me rein this post back in. The following, in no particular order, is my current Book Review and To-Reread List.

  1. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
  3. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
  4. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
  5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  8. The Devil Earl by Deborah Simmons
  9. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  10. A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

I did enjoy those books a lot, so here’s to hoping the rereads will help yield decent reviews.

Cheers!

A Return to Writing

A friend once told me, “Going back to writing is like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. Just get back on that seat and practice.” Interestingly enough, that’s what people tell me about driving too. Writing, driving, and riding a bike—the three activities that bring me the most dread these days.

See, at some point last year, I made the crazy decision to take a year-long hiatus from writing. It was roughly around the same time I stopped driving, learned how to ride a bike, and just as quickly unlearned that skill. I took a break from writing to put all my focus on planning my wedding. As for driving, well, stopping wasn’t a conscious choice. It just so happens that everything I need is within walking distance. Plus, I work from home. Taking all things into consideration, this place is the lazy man’s paradise or the consumerist’s version of heaven. You take your pick. And riding a bike? That’s always been more my husband’s interest than mine.

Now, out of those three life skills, writing was the one I felt I wouldn’t have problems going back to. See, I love writing. It’s something that comes naturally to me, or at least it used to. Writing was more than my bread and butter, it was the way I made sense of the world and everything going on around me. It allowed me to reexamine life and put words behind thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t readily express verbally.

To quote Anaïs Nin, “We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect.” And isn’t every experience bigger—whether for the worse or for the better—in retrospect? To put it in productivity terms, writing was my area and moment of “flow.” I was never a brilliant writer, but what I lacked in technical skill, I made up for in enthusiasm and drive. It’s the incessant pull of es muss sein that can’t be quieted until everything that needs to be written has been expunged. Writing was my lifeline. And for a very long time, Writer was the fulcrum of my identity.

So, as you can imagine, it came as a nasty surprise that returning to writing—especially for pleasure—wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be. I can’t seem to get through one sentence without self-doubt creeping in. Rust has settled in, crusting over that old enthusiasm I used to rely on. The interest is there, the pull is there, but the execution is proving to be agonizing and sloppy. But giving up is not an option. To stop writing forever? That would be my personal hell.

And so, here we are. Tabula rasa. I’ll write. I will chip away at the crust and the rust, fake that old fervor until the upswing of that fever comes to consume me. I will go wherever my writing takes me. And maybe, in conquering this fear of writing, the lever will pivot and I’ll also drive and ride a bike once more.

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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“The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

Of things unknown

But longed for still

And his tune is heard

On the distant hill

For the caged bird

Sings of freedom.”

  • From the poem, Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (1983)

 

THE caged bird has long been the symbol of man’s struggle against the shackles of oppression. In his 1899 poem, Sympathy, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote about knowing how the caged bird feels. How it grieves for its loss of freedom, and “beats his wings till its blood is red on the cruel bars.” This image of the caged bird crying and clamoring for freedom is one that made an indelible mark on Maya Angelou’s young mind.

In her masterful 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (the first volume of a seven-part series), Angelou herself is the caged bird trying to break out of a world rife with racism, sexism, and strife. Detailing her early years to her adolescence, this poignant autobiography shows us Maya Angelou’s transformation from a withdrawn and self-conscious child to a confident trailblazer whose works would eventually influence, give voice to, and elevate an entire nation.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

The Unwanted Child: An Attempt at Normalcy in Stamps, Arkansas

“Stamps, Arkansas, was Chitlin’ Switch, Georgia; Hang ‘Em High, Alabama; Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, Nigger, Mississippi; or any other name just as descriptive. People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days, he had to be satisfied with chocolate.  (p. 49)

Picture this: Two small children onboard a train—a three-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. They sit on the edge of their seats, clasping each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles turn white. They’re traveling from Long Beach, California, to Stamps, Arkansas, and don’t seem to have anyone else with them. A journey of over 1,500 miles with no one to watch over them. Their tickets are pinned to the boy’s coat pocket, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find tags on their wrists addressed to the porter. The tags read: “To whom it may concern…”

Nowadays, such an occurrence is hard to imagine. Nobody in their right mind would send two preschoolers on a cross-country train trip without adult supervision. And if someone ever did, it’s the type of event that would cause an uproar. The children’s parents would likely be sued for neglect. But times were very different in the 1930s. While it was always heartbreaking for train passengers to see these children frightened and alone, it happened often enough that the children’s parents never really got into much trouble.

The example above is by no means a pretty picture, but it is an accurate one. This was how Maya Angelou and her brother, Bailey, came to live with their grandmother, Momma, and Uncle Willie in the heavily segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. Their parents had just put an end to their “calamitous marriage,” and likely thought that it was the best arrangement for their children.

After all, Momma was a strong, resourceful, and successful businesswoman. She was the proud owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store—the Store that provided for the everyday needs of the town’s entire Black community. And true enough, Momma did a great job raising Maya and Bailey. She gave the kids as much love, care, and discipline as any great mother could give. But while their home life provided the children the stability they needed during those early years, it still proved impossible for Momma to completely shelter them from the hardships that came with living in the racist south.

At a young age, Maya and her brother became privy to the dangers and difficulties that came with discrimination. During the cotton-picking season, Black workers from town would enter the store, thrumming with optimism over the promise of an abundant harvest. By nightfall, they would return, deflated and bone-weary. Their hands sore from an entire day of picking prickly cotton, their hearts heavy and their pockets still near empty.

There was also the looming threat of the KKK riding in at any time, looking for an excuse to punish a Black man for one crime or another. Any man with dark skin would do. It was punishment by proxy. The segregation also meant that medical services were hard to come by; as nearby white doctors and dentists refused to treat anyone with ‘colored’ skin. As Maya later observed, equality only came in the event of a national crisis.

 “It was when the owners of cotton fields dropped the payment of ten cents for a pound of cotton to eight, seven, and finally five that the Negro community realized that the Depression, at least, did not discriminate.” (p.50)

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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart

Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3

Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.

With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?

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Featured Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

In a world so determined to dictate its standards onto one’s person, it’s always refreshing to find literary works—essays, poems, short stories, and novels—that encourage the celebration of one’s individuality. And if said works could be both empowering and entertaining, then all the better.

For over a decade, my ‘feel-good poem’ has been Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. It’s a poem that I like to write down in all my journals. That way, if I was having a lousy day and needed a quick pick-me-up, all I had to do was reach into my bag and give the piece a swift read. Instant mood and confidence boost! But now that my current journal is down to its final pages, I’m thinking that for my next one, Maya Angelou’s famous poem will have to learn to share the spotlight. See, I think I’ve found the perfect accompanying piece to Phenomenal Woman, and that’s Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top.

Just like Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a poem that’s built to be said out loud in a tone oozing with sass, good humor, confidence, and cocksure conviction. It’s a piece that positively thrums with joy. Just watch how Lucille Clifton delivers it, and tell me that you didn’t crack at least one smile throughout her reading.

Much like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a celebration of womanhood. It is a poem that urges women to take ownership of their bodies—to love themselves, just as they are. Big hips and all.

Now, at first glance, the poem itself appears to be very straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that Clifton cannot be bothered with capitalizations and multitudes of metaphors, flowery language and line breaks that are pregnant with meaning. The poet knows what she wants to say and says it directly to her audience. She leaves no room for argument or even the possibility of discussion. She says everything as fact—and rightfully so. Who better to know the effects of one’s body than its wearer?

Clifton starts the poem with the simple but effective declaration: these hips are big hips. Now, even in 1980, when the poem was published in Clifton’s award-winning book of poems, Two-Headed Woman, big hips weren’t exactly de rigueur. In fact, the body ideal during this period had just begun shifting from the soft and slight curves of the 1970s dancing queens to the leggy and athletic Amazonian proportions of the 1980s supermodels.

During that period, there was hardly any room for women with big, bold hips in fashion magazines. But that didn’t really matter to Clifton. See, her hips need space to move around in. Her hips don’t fit into little petty places. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that her how her body was supposed to look like, because her hips are free hips. Those are hips that were never enslaved by something as petty as convention or the standards of fashion. She didn’t care about measuring herself by anyone else’s specifications—and why would she, when she had her own yardstick to measure herself against. She knew perfectly well that her big hips were mighty and magical hips, powerful hips that have put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

Now, it’s interesting to note how Clifton had zeroed in and written an homage about a very specific body part. It begs the question, (for this reader, at least), of Why the hips? If Clifton’s point was to urge women to celebrate their bodies as a way of celebrating their entire selves—for, really, try as we may to separate the physical from the spiritual/mental, our bodies are the tangible representations of our inner selves—why stop with that one bit? Why not talk about breasts, waists, hands, and so on and so forth?

For example, in Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou enumerated and exalted in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the bend of her hair, and even the curl of her hips. In doing so, Angelou had painted a complete portrait of a woman. You could imagine this phenomenal woman and slip into her shoes easily. And to be fair, the same could be said about Lucille Clifton’s big hips. Any woman could identify with, wear, and sashay in those hips. And I guess that’s what makes Homage to My Hips so amazing—and maybe that’s also the answer to my previous question.

Why the hips? It’s because much of a woman’s identity in history is actually tied to her hips. Maybe I’m over-reading or overreaching here, but the way I see it is that the hips are home to what a lot of writers like to refer to as the woman’s core. Personally, I think vagina works just fine, but potatoes, po-tah-tos. The hips are the center of a woman’s sexuality. And for a long time, what those hips could produce—a child!—was also seen as the largest measure of her worth and her identity. Why else would our ancestors be so obsessed with child-bearing hips?

And I’d like to believe that the poem, more than celebrating a woman’s form, whatever that form or shape may take, is also a way of urging women to take charge of their sexuality and their identity. Buck the body trends, and more importantly, create your own definition of who you are as a woman. Don’t let society impose its standards on your person. Instead, create, and more importantly, live your own story.

That, and of course, big hips (no matter their actual size) are fabulous and beautiful hips.

Choosing Happiness: Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

A couple of months ago, I hit a slump—and I mean, I really hit it. Creatively, physically, socially, emotionally, financially, and mentally. Pretty much any other word you can append a –ly to. Ecumenically. As far as winters of discontent go, this one was admittedly pretty middling, but harsh enough to warrant a bit of sunshine. So, out went one of my favorite summer self-improvement reads, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Now, one of the things I love about The Happiness Project is that despite having the word Happiness right-smack in the middle of its title, it’s not an overly sentimental, leap-of-faith, and hokey-ish kind of read. In fact, Rubin spends quite a lot of time citing different studies from psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, philosophers, and other health and happiness experts. She looks at happiness as something attainable, something you can work towards through a series of actionable items. And I like that. During moments when it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, I need to know that I can still bring my own lamp—light my own way.

So, while I’m in the process of sifting through muck, I wanted to share my thoughts about some of the ideas I’m currently reading about. For today, we’re taking a look at how a person’s decision-making process affects his or her happiness.

Maximizers and Satisficers: A Definition of Terms

One of my favorite ideas from The Happiness Project is something that Rubin picked up from the American psychologist, Barry Schwartz. In Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, he discusses how being faced with so many options can cause us anxiety, stress, and even analysis paralysis. He talks about two distinct types of shoppers—the maximizer and the satisficer.

Now, in the world of economics, it is assumed that buyers are geared towards availing of the best services and products available. Maximizers fit this assumption perfectly. The maximizer is the type of shopper who wants to make the best and the most informed decisions at all times. Even when faced with a product or service that ticks all the boxes, the maximizer won’t be able to make up his or her mind until all options have been examined or exhausted.

For the maximizer, there is always this nagging feeling that something better might be out there. In a way, you can say that maximizers are the consummate perfectionists of the buying world. The maximizer will not settle for anything less than the best. Now, according to an article from Psychology Today, the upside to not settling is that “overall, maximizers achieve better outcomes than satisficers.”

In a 2012 study from Swarthmore College, it was discovered that recent graduates with maximizing tendencies ended up accepting jobs with starting salaries that were up to 20% higher than their satisficing counterparts. However, despite earning more than their peers, the perfectionist aspect of the maximizers still had these graduates second-guessing their decisions. They were still asking themselves, “What if there’s a better option out there?” They were more prone to comparing themselves to others as a way of gauging whether or not they’ve ended up with the best possible outcome.

See, the main downside to being a maximizer is that you’re less certain about the choices you make. This makes a maximizing shopper more prone to disappointment and buyer’s remorse, which in turn lessens his or her happiness levels.

And happiness is where satisficers earn a leg up over their maximizing peers. See, unlike the maximizer and his/her sky-high expectations, satisficers tend to live by a more modest criteria. Don’t get me wrong, the satisficing customer isn’t about to settle for anything less than what he/she originally wanted, but once a product or a service meets the shopper’s requirements, he/she will have no qualms making a decision. And unlike the maximizer, the satisficer stops looking for other options, thereby inoculating him/her against buyer’s remorse.

This is the point that Barry Schwartz makes in The Paradox of Choice. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers because they’re perfectly content with “good enough.” They don’t agonize as much over their decisions; and if you think about it, that’s really not a bad way to go through life.

So, are you a Satisficer, a Maximizer, or are you a mix of both?

Now, the beauty of learning about these tendencies is that it lets us take a step back to evaluate what’s important to us and what works for us. Both shopping personalities offer great advantages. Some people are perfectly happy being maximizers, while others swear by their satisficing tendencies. Others still, are a mix of both. They’re maximizers when it comes to certain areas in their lives and satisficers in other areas.

So, which type are you? If you’re unsure about which category you fall under, here’s a Maximizer vs Satisficer Quiz from Psychologist World. Me, I’m 65% a satisficer and 35% a maximizer. How about you?

Featured Poem: Her Kind by Anne Sexton

Her Kind

Back in college, quite some time ago, there was this little game I used to play called “100 steps.” I would pace around the university library, meandering through the maze of towering shelves, one hand lightly touching the fabric, paper, and leather spines of the books I would walk past. I would mentally count each step, only stopping on the hundredth mark. Then, I’d pull out and peruse whatever tome I ended up touching last. Not the most fun game around, sure. But it was a great way to find new and interesting reads.

Through this little game, I learned quite a bit about a variety of random but fascinating topics. We’re talking South American courtship practices, the history of polygamy, modern-day bigamy, and my personal favorite—the rise of eating disorders in women during the Victorian era. This little practice also made it easier for me to discover amazing poets like Dorothy Parker, Maya Angelou, and the genius behind today’s featured poem, the controversial and unforgettable Anne Sexton.

A Few Words on the Poet

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a Pulitzer-winning American poet known for her incredibly potent and oftentimes dark verse. Like my favorite poet of all time, Sylvia Plath, most of Sexton’s works comprised of confessional poetry that touched on difficult and deeply personal themes like mental disorders, suicide, depression, social stigmas, the struggles faced by women during that period, and the complex and sometimes scarring relationships between the writer and her loved ones.

And just like Plath, Sexton had no trouble mining, exhuming, examining, and using her experiences to say what was generally unsayable. No topic appeared taboo to Sexton—although she did request that The Awful Rowing Toward God be published only after her death. And she really did have a very deep well of experiences to draw from. Throughout her short life—sadly shortened by her own hands, no less—Sexton struggled against multiple episodes of severe manic and depressive attacks.

It was during her second spiral into mania in 1955 that she met her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne. During their therapy sessions, Dr. Orne began encouraging Sexton to take up writing. The poet attended John Holmes’s poetry workshop, where it was discovered that she had an incredible knack for poetry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Her Kind: A Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Anne Sexton’s famous poem, Her Kind, explores the struggles of its persona to conform to the societal expectations and norms levied against women during the early to mid-20th century. During this period, women were expected to live a certain way—to grow up to be future wives, mothers, and homemakers, with little wiggle room to be anything else. In other words, a woman’s path was paved but incredibly narrow, bright but harshly lit, with a lobotomy waiting at the end of it. But the voice of Her Kind is unwilling, or maybe even unable, to minimize herself to fit the strict confines of society’s definition of woman. She cannot and will not be boxed in.

Now, to illustrate the character’s defiance, Sexton divides the poem into three sections, with each stanza showing a specific side of the persona. In the first stanza, the persona presents herself as a lonesome suburban witch. The next stanza, she’s a lonely housewife or mother. And finally, in the last stanza, the persona paints herself as a defiant adulteress about to face her execution. Written in the first person, Her Kind reads more like a declaration of self, an affirmation of identity, rather than a simple retelling of the character’s life. It is the persona’s rebellion against the dictates of a society seeking to restrict her identity by telling her who, what, and how to be.

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