Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

With a title like that, how could I not pick this book up?  It is the second mystery novel about an 11 year old English girl detective/chemist, named Flavia de Luce.  She's clever and well-read, tossing references to history and literature in her musings about a hanging in her English village.  She has two annoying older sisters and an absent-minded professor for a Father.  She's fascinated with chemistry, thanks to the lab left behind by a long dead uncle.  The story is peppered with experiments and concoctions that makes me want to mix things up in test tubes.  She outwits the distracted adults around her as she pursues the mystery.  I can picture our granddaughter who's close to this age daring to tackle the challenge.

The title is from a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh to his son.  It's one of many allusions to classic literature that can be found throughout the story.  I liked the droll comments shared with the reader as Flavia reveals her true thoughts while maintaining the outward appearance of a child to the adults around her.  I smiled a lot reading it, and chuckled a few times.  A quick summer read.

Published:  2010  Read: June 2013  Genre: Mystery

Saturday, June 22, 2013

How to Want What You Have - Timothy Miller

subtitle: Discovering the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence

This book has been on my TBR for years.  I'm not sure what prompted me to add it to the list, probably a recommendation from one of the many blogs I follow on simplicity.  It took me a couple of months of picking it up and wandering back to it until I finally finished it.

The author is a clinical psychologist with experience with many different settings and people.  He practices "cognitive psychotherapy" which holds that emotions and behaviors originate from thoughts, which originate from beliefs.  Thoughts are often repetitive and illogical and beliefs are often incorrect. Those that produce unhappy feelings and unwanted behaviors are essentially bad habits.  So, change your thoughts, correct your beliefs and you'll be happy.  At first, the psychobabble put me off but I kept reading.

The key message is that you can want what you have by practicing three things: Compassion (Love), Attention (Humility) and Gratitude (Thankfulness).

Love, he notes, primarily refers either to kin altruism or reciprocal altruism.  It's a big advantage in life to have a big loving family and to enjoy good relations with all of them, that's kin altruism.  It's also a big advantage to have many friends that will help and support you though there is more expectation of reciprocating.  Romantic love, he says, is a specialized form of reciprocal altruism. That viewpoint gives me insight into how important family and friends are for happiness.

Compassion is the intention to think and act as if you are no more entitled to get what you want than anyone else is.  Practicing compassion can be as minor as recognizing this while standing in a long line and not getting frustrated (you are no more important than anyone else in line, that hit home with me!).  Compassion is as major as recognizing that "this person ultimately wants about the same things that I want, for about the same reasons, we differ only in the strategies we choose and the opportunities and talents available to us." It means no one is absolutely entitled to get what he wants, no one deserves pain.No one can ever be absolutely sure that he is right and his adversary is wrong.  Others feel about the same way I do and justify their methods for getting what they want the same way I do.

Attention is being present, acting as if every action is important.  Attention replaces obsessive thinking and worry.  Attention is avoiding unnecessary value judgements about people and your experiences.  This is a bit of a challenge for Western minds not used to being in the moment.  Paying attention to feelings, going with them, facing the fear and being still with it and it will ease.  Calming the insistent ruminating thoughts and recognizing the here and now.  There is nothing that can be done about the past and the future isn't here yet.

Gratitude is the third component.  He emphasizes that gratitude can't be forced and recommends recognizing ungrateful thoughts and replacing them with small gratitudes.  It works!  Being grateful for something in the moment brings greater gratitude.  Being thankful leads to greater feelings of gratitude.

The book concludes with an explanation of how these three practices interact and reinforce each other.  He explains how to use meditation, beginning with small increments of time, to practice all three. This may stay on my shelf for a second read in the future.

Published: 1995  Read: June 2013  Genre: Non-fiction, psychology

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Maya's Notebook - Isabel Allende

I love this author.  I've read almost all her books and enjoy her storytelling.  This one is no exception.
This is the story of a young teen who loses her way after her grandfather who raised her, dies.  Her grandmother sends her away to the islands off of Chile to hide and recuperate.  The story is funny, tragic, horrifying, encouraging, honest and hopeful.  Told in the first person, the voice is fresh and frank.  Some quotes:

p. 176 - [on insomnia] "..at night...I get attacked by my lifelong enemies, sorrow, loss, humiliation, and guilt."

p. 181 "Happiness is slippery, it slithers away between your finger, but problems are something you can hold on to, they've got handles, they're rough and hard."

p. 319 "...love makes us good.  It doesn't matter who we love, nor does it matter whether our love is reciprocated or not or if the relationship lasts. Just the experience of loving is enough, that's what transforms us."

p.  406 "Intimacy needs time to mature.....It's a slow-growing plant."

p. 513 "An addiction to love won't ruin your health or your life...but you need to learn how to distinguish between the object of your love, and the excitement of having your heart opened."

p. 521 [on grief at losing someone] "...it was not a question of replacing her, but of trying to live without her.  That affection is inside you, Maya.  You can give it to others..and what's left over you can give to me."

A great read and another good book from a favorite author.

Published: 2013  Read: June 2013  Genre: Fiction

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Empty Cradles - Margaret Humphreys

A friend in one of my book groups gave me this book to read.  It reveals the history of the British empire's deporting of almost 150,00 children to other countries from the 1920's until 1967.  The story is told by the social worker in Nottinghamshire who learns of the program when asked to find the parents of a woman who comes under her care.  She discovers that after WWII, children in the care of the government and charitable organizations were sent to Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia to populate these far corners of the empire with "good white British stock".  She later learned the program was also conducted in the 1920's and 30's with the export of children to Canada.

The children were in most cases told they were orphans and were going to foster homes.  In reality, they were often sent to institutional settings in the other country, without their parents knowledge, to relieve the government and the charitable organizations of  their overburdened family assistance programs.  Horrific stories of abuse, loss and despair are told to illustrate the effect of the policy on the children and their families.

The arrogance of the English  and Australian governments and the charities involved is clearly shown in quotes from memos authorizing the program.  To grow up without any family, not knowing your history or heritage was heartbreaking.

Two television broadcasts were produced on the program, the documentary, Lost Children of the Empire, in 1989 and the drama, The Leaving of Liverpool  in 1991.  A movie was also recently released called "Oranges and Sunshine".  The author founded "The Child Migrants Trust" to fund research and provide support to families looking to find their roots and deal with the effects of their deportation.  Her organization manned phones during the broadcasts and had victims and their families calling until early in the morning.

I felt I gained insight into the ways a social worker cares for people, how they are skilled at listening and being accepting of the person's feelings.  The author says at one point describing her encounter with an adult that was sexually abused as a child while in one of the institutions in Australia:

"...and then suddenly there is a programme on the television and he somehow finds the courage or the anger to come and say "I'm giving you this.  I've carried it for long enough, I'm giving it to you now."  It's no good sitting there saying I don't want it.  You take their baggage because you know its too heavy for one person to carry through a lifetime. "

A shameful history for Britain and a sad and moving story.

Published:  1994  Read: June 2013  Genre: Non-fiction, history

Annie John - Jamaica Kincaid

I don't remember where I heard of this book but it was on my TBR list and I picked it up at a local used bookstore.  A young girl grows up from someone very attached to her mother and her whole world being her home to leaving for college in another country.  She slowly develops her independence, finding her own views on life and other people.  The story takes place in Antigua where Annie is a native made to conform to  British customs.  The writing could almost be considered for young adults, told in the child's voice, its simplistic.  It did not leave much of an impression.  I found from reading reviews it was assigned reading in school for many young people.

Published: 1983  Read: May 2013  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Uncle Tungsten - Oliver Sacks

Subtitle: Memories of a chemical boyhood

I've been reading the non-fiction of Oliver Sacks for many years.  He is  neurologist and writes about how our brains work or in some cases don't work.  He's probably most well-known as the author of Awakenings, his memoir of treating victims encephalitis with L-dopa, that was made into a movie with Robin Williams.  I highly recommend any of his books for a layman's understanding of the miracle that is our brains.

This book is the story of his early childhood, growing up in England during WWII.  He was fascinated with chemistry and up until age 14, the story chronicles his learning and experiments.

I enjoyed this book very much.  I re-learned what little chemistry I remembered and marveled at the evolution of a young child's learning of a complex subject.  Most impressive is the atmosphere of learning in his household.  Every adult in his family and his older brothers encouraged his curiosity, answering his questions, demonstrating the properties of chemicals and never treating him as incapable of grasping the information.  I felt the story provided a model for exposing young children to science and math and letting them learn through exploration and experimentation.

Sacks' parents were both doctors and his one Uncle manufactured tungsten light bulbs, among other products.  Like his two brothers, Oliver was expected to become a doctor and so at puberty turned to biology and the medical sciences.

Some chosen quotes I noted during reading:

p. 27 "Auntie Len always delighted me by showing me all sorts of botanical and mathematical pleasurs.  She showed me the spiral patterns on the faces of sunflowers..and suggested I count the florets in these...[and] pointed out that they were arranged according to a series...this series, she said, was called a Fibonacci series."

p. 48 [on experimenting with light] ...a material that would shine with special brillance...was calcia - calcium oxide, or lime.  This "limelight", Uncle Dave said, was discovered in the 1820's and used to illuminate the stages in theaters for many decades".  Hence "being in the limelight".

His ongoing experiments with chemicals revealed the structure of the periodic table and led to his grasp of atomic weight, atomic number and the elegant order of the elements.

If ever there was an example of encouraging learning in a young mind, this book provides it.

Published: 2001  Read: May 2013   Genre: Memoir