On Becoming Easygoing

The Secret to Aging Well? Contentment. That recent New York Times article caught my eye, because clearly I’m aging and with luck, I’ll continue to age for another 30 years or so. My body and mind are likely to take hits along the way, so how can I age gracefully? What magic needs to take place in my mind so I’ll be accepting of inevitable changes, tolerant and easygoing when confronted with irritating people and situations, and content with the many good things in my life, if not joyful?

Hmmm. This might be harder than it sounds . . . . Ever since I was a girl, I’ve had a writer’s sensibility—noticing sensory details along with the quirks and nuance of how people behave. I’ve mentally recorded and searched for the words to describe all of what I see and experience.

For a writer, the capacity for analysis and the ability to think critically are assets. For example, I wrote the previous sentence five times before I found the right words, and I enjoyed that analytical process. I also analyzed the NYT’s author’s choice of “contentment” and concluded that “acceptance” and “being easygoing” would be more accurate word choices for the outlook he is recommending. But who asked me?!?

Because writing has been both my work and my passion for decades, I’ve honed my ability to see, remember, analyze, and define. Yet now the habit of noticing and articulating everything appears to be at cross purposes with the habits of being tolerant and accepting. Implied in my wish to become more patient and forbearing is the expectation that I’ll quit noticing stuff and letting it bother me.

The habits of a lifetime are hard to change. I will probably remain particular about writing. But I’ve already cultivated the power to notice without judging in some of the other areas of my life. For example, one of my friends always apologizes for her messy house. I can see that it is, but I don’t care. Mine’s messy too.

Another friend wears the same three shirts over and over, but I accept that although she has the money, she doesn’t care about clothes. And I definitely sympathize with her dislike of shopping.

Many of my friends and family are passionate about sports, while I remain lukewarm. No doubt the sports lovers are equally baffled by my passion for reading and gardening. They must wonder how I can get so excited about Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel or why anybody cares at all about plants with variegated leaves!

Variegated

Variegated coleus

Perhaps the answer to my dilemma is to refocus my observational powers on seeing the good in life and finding the words for that. That sounds positive and cheerful, which is how I want to be. Maybe with practice I can flex those muscles and strengthen my capacity to be easygoing and accepting.

I figure I’m still young. I’ve still got a few years to get that right!

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Beyond the Bestseller–The Answer to a Book Lover’s Dilemma

My recent purchases

I’m always reading novels, memoirs, or essay collections, sometimes two books at once. Given my love of reading, it seems odd that in recent years I’ve had trouble finding books that I really enjoy.

My tastes have changed. Since 2016, I often have wanted to step back from the real world and put my brain on the rinse cycle for a few hours. Unfortunately for me, some of the books that attract critical acclaim often are challenging to read.

The stories may portray truly awful events (slavery, abuse, war crimes) so vividly that reading them leaves me drained, not recharged. Other stories feature antihero characters who are so unlikable that I don’t want to spend a week with them. Or the author may be experimenting with narrative techniques that are intellectually interesting but not emotionally satisfying.

I want escape, but not just any escape. I’m not looking for syrupy sweet, happily-ever-after novels. Instead, I prefer a believable, involving story, one in which the characters are likable or interesting enough that I can engage emotionally and care about their plight.

Finding good books has gotten harder. Zillions of books are published every year. Amazon has millions of them. The public library has thousands. So what’s the big deal?

I’ve realized that my habit of reading with Kindle (whether purchased books or books checked out from the library) has stunted my reading list. In both cases, the recommendation and search algorithms are pretty rudimentary. Just finished a novel about the Holocaust? The library’s app and Amazon’s will suggest three more Holocaust novels. Wait, noooo!

The problem is compounded by the way book marketing and promotion works. During any given month, only 20-30 books are being touted, and the same ones appear on everyone’s bestseller lists and in numerous articles with titles like, “Best Books of 2018” or “This Summer’s 10 Must-Read Books.” Obviously, there are way more than 30 new books out there!  So how can I find them?

An aha moment. Duh. At bookstores. Where they have actual books. Made of paper. Recently, I visited Magers & Quinn and quickly found several good books by award-winning writers and added more to my “Want to Read” list. The books I chose are considered to be “midlist” (which is publisher-speak for a well-written book that is not a bestseller), so none of them were mentioned in any of the reviews or blogs I consult.

What a relief! The books are out there, but I’ve been looking in the wrong places!

If you’re curious, here are three really enjoyable books I purchased recently–The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, and I Will Send Rain by Rae Meadows.

 

Looking for a Pretty Good Book?

The BookLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What attracted me? I loved her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng writes skillfully about troubled family dynamics and the subtleties of racial tension—themes that appeared in her first book. That book balances the central mystery (How and why did 16-year-old Lydia Lee die?) with character studies of her family members and boyfriend. Ng’s writing is insightful and poetic.

For me, there was the added bonus of learning about Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community in northeastern Ohio. Although I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, at the western edge of Lake Erie, I know very little about the Cleveland area.

The premise? Little Fires Everywhere also opens with a mystery. The Richardson house, home to well-to-do parents Elena and Bill Richardson and their four teenaged kids: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, has been nearly demolished by fire, but no one was hurt. The family is fairly sure that rebellious Izzy set the fire, so the question is why. While Elena is watching her house smolder, her starving artist tenant, Mia Warren, and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, abruptly leave the small house Elena had rented to them.

What appealed to me? Ng does an excellent job of re-creating the idealistic, but claustrophobic, culture of Shaker Heights in the 1990s, a pre-digital age. Pagers were more common than cell phones and research was done the hard way—without the Internet—a fact that allows Mia to pull up stakes and move without a trace every 10-12 months in pursuit of Mia’s art.

Because she’s always lived a vagabond lifestyle, Pearl relishes being swept into the lives of the Richardson kids. None of the kids is aware of how Pearl interacts with the other siblings, which heightens family tensions.

Privilege and class undermine the relationships. Elena, intending to be generous, bullies Mia into cleaning house for the Richardsons, in addition to her job at a Chinese restaurant. Lexie gives Mia castoff clothes, which Pearl is happy to have, but Mia resents.

Race becomes a central issue when Mia’s friend and coworker Bebe, an impoverished Chinese immigrant, seeks to regain custody of her daughter Mei Ling, who has been adopted by the Richardson’s wealthy, childless white friends.

Much good material. But despite intriguing characters and set-up, the book strained credibility. Even allowing for being set in a pre-digital age, could Mia really disappear so completely every year or so? While the Richardson kids are more than character sketches, none of them feels fully realized. Interestingly, Izzy, who sets the novel in motion, is the least developed.

Sometimes in her effort to contrast Elena and Mia, along with the life choices they’ve made, Ng drifts into stereotyping. The book is a pretty good read but not as believable or affecting as Everything I Never Told You.

What books do YOU recommend?

Looking for a Good Book?

WordSisters is adding a new feature—a completely idiosyncratic mini book review/recommendation that will appear every now and then.

The bookThere Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

What attracted me? I’ve read several of Mary Gordon’s novels (The Company of Women, Final Payments) and think she’s a good writer, but I haven’t read anything of hers lately, so I was curious. Also I was pretty sure that Mary Gordon wouldn’t have written a romance novel, which is sort of what the title sounds like—a bit of misdirection.

The premise – When Marian, a woman in her nineties, is diagnosed with cancer, she shares her secret past with her granddaughter, Amelia. Marian is closer to Amelia than any of her other relatives, and Amelia is caring for Marian while she sorts out her life after college.

Amelia envisions that the secret past she is about to discover will be quaint and charming, perhaps involving flapper dresses and smoking. Instead, she learns her grandmother volunteered as an ambulance driver and nurse during the Spanish Civil War along with her idealistic Communist Party friends. Marian’s time in Spain has far-reaching consequences, which affect Amelia.

What appealed to me – Marian and Amelia are likable characters, and I liked the idea of their close connection. Marian’s story dominates the book and her reactions are often surprising, which made her more interesting. Amelia is less well developed but still a believable character (Gordon could have done more with her), has her own coming-of-age moment.

The plot takes some unexpected turns (that’s good), and I learned a lot about the history and politics in Spain that resulted in the atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s fascist forces as well as those committed by the resistance fighters. Aside from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War, so Gordon’s novel illuminated that time for me.

What books do YOU recommend?