Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Release date (Australia): August 2010
Rating: 7.5/10

Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. "The days are long, but the years are short," she realized. "Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter." In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project. In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. Each month she tackled a new set of resolutions: give proofs of love, ask for help, find more fun, keep a gratitude notebook, forget about results.

She immersed herself in principles set forth by all manner of experts, from Epicurus to Thoreau to Oprah to Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama to see what worked for her—and what didn't. Her conclusions are sometimes surprising - she finds that money can buy happiness, when spent wisely; that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that "treating" yourself can make you feel worse; that venting bad feelings doesn't relieve them; that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference - and they range from the practical to the profound.

I’m finding it hard to review this book because I really enjoyed it but I’m not quite sure what to write about it. Gretchen Rubin’s writing is conversational and funny, despite the fact that this somewhat biography could also be put into the self-help section in a bookstore. It’s realistic about the average person’s life and their level of ability to include her ideas and suggestions into their busy schedules.

The time to start exercising, stop nagging, and organise our digital photos was when everything was going smoothly. I didn’t want to wait for a crisis to remake my life.

One aspect I loved about this book is that Gretchen has obviously done a significant amount of research into the psychology and history of happiness, which I found interesting. She doesn’t rely on it in her own story of happiness, but manages to incorporate the research into what she did and why. Gretchen is also well-read on subjects such as religion, parenthood, general health and work.

"Nothing,' wrote Tolstoy, 'can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness."

I enjoyed this book because it gave me some small manageable ideas on how to make life happier, which is important in a year that has been quite full of stress and anxiety. I feel that this is what Gretchen Rubin was aiming to do, giving people manageable ideas on how to make their lives happier without having to jet off to Italy for a year or do something drastic like quit their job. And for this, she succeeds.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Worst Thing She Ever Did by Alice Kuipers

Release date (Australia): 1 May 2010
Rating: 8/10

Sixteen-year-old Sophie is convinced her life is OK now, if only she could just be allowed to move on from what happened last summer. Sure, her mother is crazy and all of her friends treat her as if she’s made of glass, but she’s FINE. She just wishes she could forget about Emily. When her therapist – whom her mum makes her go and see – suggests she keep a diary, Sophie realises that the panic attacks she’s suffering from might, in fact, be a sign that she’s actually not OK, at least not yet. Gradually, though, with the help of the new girl at school, and, eventually, her mother, Sophie finds strength in herself and those around her. And as she allows herself to remember, she also begins to forgive.

I am currently taking forever to read the book I’m currently reading, even though it is brilliant, but I just have been really busy. So I thought I’d do an update on a book I read earlier this year because I thought it was wonderful. (As a side note, this book is called Lost For Words in the United States.)

Written in diary format, which I know is not everyone’s cup of tea, but in this case I think it really suits the story and the character of Sophie. At times a typical teenager, feeling like she has no one to confide in and no one that understands what she is going through, she is also dealing with a tragedy that no human being should have the endure. The details of this are pointedly left hazy with small hints given as the book progresses. I find this technique sometimes frustrating in books, but in The Worst Thing She Ever Did I think it works incredibly well and you get to ‘know’ Sophie before you know exactly what has happened to her and her family.

Love, sisterhood, friendship, family, post-traumatic stress disorder, death, and panic attacks are all dealt with in this story with eloquence and beauty. But it’s not all gloom and doom, with enough light-heartedness of other aspects of the story to prevent it from being depressing. I think it’s an important read and well worth the sometimes heart-wrenching content. Without giving anything away, it’s a book that I found moving and beautiful and touched on an event close to my heart.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pretty Bad Things by C.J. Skuse

Release date (Australia): 1 August 2010
Rating: 8/10

Twins in Candy-Store Crime Spree...
I know what you’re thinking. Tearaway Teens. Yadda yadda. Maybe you’re right. But we’re all out of choices. Last time we made headlines, Beau and I were six-year-old ‘wonder twins’. Little kids found alive in woods after three days missing, looking for our dad. We’ve just hit sixteen and life’s not so wonderful. In fact, it sucks out loud. Still no Dad. Still lost. Still looking. But now we’ve got a clue to where Dad could be. Everything’s changed. It’s a long shot but we’ve nothing to lose.

I loved this book far more than I expected to. I was halfway through another book and just felt like reading something easy and light-hearted. I saw this on the shelf at work and figured it would be okay. But it was actually one of the coolest and most daring young adult books I have read in a while. I might be biased, though, because I am a big fan of Las Vegas. I’ve only spent one night there, but it was just fun. Being from the most isolated city in the world, perhaps I just loved the bright lights and the craziness. So finding out not only that this book featured twins as the main characters (another weird thing I love), but that it was primarily set in Vegas sold it to me then and there.

“It’s the living you want to be scared of, Beau, not the dead.”

The story alternates perspective from Paisley to Beau, the 16 year old twins at the centre of the story. Their mother is dead and their father has been absent since they were six years old, hence they have been living with their awful grandmother. Paisley is brash and crude and brave where Beau is quiet and determined and cautious. The contrast is perfect and the relationship is incredibly realistic. The strength of their relationship and the support and love they have for each other is evident from the beginning, as well as the sacrifices they would make in a heartbeat if it meant helping their sibling; this is the heart of the story for me. C.J. Skuse’s writing is almost flawless, incredibly witty and intelligent, with the points of view of the teenagers done perfectly.

Then I did something I haven’t done since I was a child. I screamed. It was the scream I screamed in the woods when I was six, on the second day of looking for Dad. It was the scream of lost causes.

There are some serious issues within the story, not only involving the search for their missing father, but issues of right and wrong, crime, sexuality and getting into dangerous situations, and many others. But there’s also Vegas, fun, wicked music, and awesome action. I hope this author writes another book soon, preferably involving Paisley and Beau again!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Favourite Author Focus: Francesca Lia Block

Your whole life you can be told something is wrong and so you believe it. Why should you question it? But then slowly seeds are planted inside of you, one by one, by a touch or a look or a day skateboarding in a park, and they start to burst out of old hulls shells and they start to sprout. And pretty soon there are so many of them. They are named Love and Trust and Kindness and Joy and Desire and Wonder and Spirit and Soulmate. They grow into a garden so dense and thick that it starts to invade your brain where the old things you were once told are dying.

I never really “grew out of” fairy tales, I still love them. I love the real ones, Hans Christian Andersen, Grimm, et al, but I admit to loving the Disney-fied versions too. I love happy endings and everything falling perfectly into place. It’s in such contrast to real life and that is a significant part of why I loved stories that I could get lost in while I was growing up. I could forget about other scary things like surgery and pain (in the past, present or future) and live someone else’s life for a while. My love for fairy tales is primarily what brings me to write about the beautiful stories of Francesca Lia Block.

Magic can be found in stolen moments.

I started reading Francesca Lia Block in 2001 after reading her name being mentioned by some people on a band’s message board. I may have been a little ‘old’ at 16 to start reading her books, but I have never been bothered by reading books intended for audiences older or younger than myself: as long as they are well-written. It’s probably why I was reading George Orwell's 1984 at age 12, but also read Lauren Oliver's amazing Before I Fall at age 25. Francesca Lia Block’s books were (and are) virtually impossible to find in Australia, so I ordered The Rose and the Beast from Amazon because the subtitle, “Fairy Tales Retold” intrigued me. To this day, I consider this to be my favourite book of hers partly because it was the first I read and partly because it is literally fairy tales retold, which naturally I loved.

Sometimes you fall, spinning through space, grasping for the things that keep you here. Sometimes you catch them. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes they catch you.

Through The Rose and the Beast, I fell in love with Francesca Lia Block’s incredible use of language. It is fluid like poetry and the imagery is stunning. I went on to read the Weetzie Bat books (now in a collection called Dangerous Angels) within a month or so and she became one of my top five favourite authors of all time. The way she writes about love, family, sexuality, life, happiness, depression, self-injury, suicide, anything and everything, is done in such an original and creative way that I am yet to come across another author like her. I also admit to adoring the cover art of her books; this a significant part of what drew me in to want to know more about this author and her stories.

You make me feel like I have wings when you touch me.

I think Francesca Lia Block is an important author for teenage girls; I think it’s an incredible shame that her books are not really known here. I really believe that reading her books earlier in my teenage years would have helped me cope with some of the things I went through, largely due to the significant topics she covers in her books without being too opinionated. The stories she creates are, simply, beautiful.

Love is a dangerous angel.