Thursday, September 20, 2012

Self Help with a Side of Tawny Kitaen

 "Daring greatly means finding our own path and respecting what that search looks like for other folks."

Any self help book that can manage to successfully work in both a Whitesnake quote and several Harry Potter references within about 10 pages has me as a fan. Now I know that pop culture references do not a successful self-help book make, at least not just on their own, but Brene Brown's new book, Daring Greatly, is written in a way that makes it both approachable, relatable, well researched and effective. After twelve years of social science research, Brown has written a book that helps explode the myth that vulnerability equals weakness and reveals that through being vulnerable we can transform all of the key relationships in our lives.  Another excellent book choice that I'm happy to have the chance to review for Blogher's Book Club. (I was compensated for this review but the fawning, favorable opinions expressed here are all my own.)

This book is exactly what I needed to read when I devoured it on Labor Day. I read it in one sitting after a frustrating family gathering that left me irritated with myself for being too chicken to figure out a way to communicate some messy feelings. So I sprawled on the living room floor in the late afternoon sun with a fan and an iced coffee to ward off the 100 degree temperatures. I underlined constantly. I folded down corners. I made notes and comments in margins, like "Oh, that hurts it's so accurate." and "Ha ha, oh, Snape!" and "Why am I still doing this at 37?"

I cried a bit. I called myself out on things I do that Brown explains so clearly as defense mechanisms or ways we protect ourselves from the pain of shame and humiliation, the myriad creative ways we keep people away from our soft, real tender insides so we won't get hurt. So they won't stop loving us. So they won't see we aren't perfect. So we can receive their approval. Brown uses stories from her research, her own life and the lives of her friends and family to help illustrate the ways our struggle for perfect, for more likes on Facebook, for more attention, more empty notice, more distance, simply keeps us from finding real connection with other people. Or using this gorgeous Leonard Cohen quote,

 "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." 

We aren't perfect. Life will hurt us. People may not like us. They may laugh in our faces, but the only way to have bold, daring lives is to be comfortable showing our real selves to those around us, those who deserve it.  And that's key, those who deserve it. Boundaries are important in Brown's book. She isn't advocating you run out and share your most personal painful memories with your cab driver. Instead she says,

 "When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them- people with whom we've cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story."
So I finished the book. I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew what I needed to do. I made a list of what was bothering me after my irritating family get together and what steps I could take in my personal behavior to change it. It was a good list. It's working so far. I'm saying what I feel more often to those who deserve to hear it, to those who will understand. And I have Brene Brown to thank for that.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Baby Head Meatballs and Mini-Hat Headbands

When I was young, birthday parties usually consisted of having friends over, maybe some presents, maybe a slumber party, always a charming homemade cake my mom had slaved over, and very often a trip to the Pizza Hut up the street, where my friends and I would crowd our tan gangly legs around those dark wood and red Formica tables, giggle over pitchers of Coke and our little personal pan pizzas, talking about our summers and school starting and the books we'd read or movies our parents had taken us to see. I felt surrounded and warm and safe and giddy with my friends all around me during those parties. Things haven't changed much.


To celebrate my birthday a couple of weeks ago, we did pretty much the same thing we did at my birthday party when I turned 10. The clothes and hair are better than they were in 1985, but the feeling is the same. I felt surrounded and giddy and warm and safe, and lucky, really lucky.


I have this crew of people that I love. People who I can act like an idiot around. Basically people I can be myself with, no need to impress, no need to act like someone I'm not, because these are my people. They get me, and they still love me, even though they know me so well, disturbingly well. So we pretty much had a 10 year old Kassie birthday party. We ate at a wonderful Italian restaurant with portions so significant, and meatballs so sizeable, one of my best friends, Tara, said "That's the size of a baby's head." And it was. Only much more delicious than an actual baby head, I would guess. Though those clean baby heads do smell amazing.


We ate saucy yummy Italian, we drank more wine than I did at 10, but other than that and the upgrade from personal pan pizzas, it was pretty close to the same party. We talked about books and movies and our summers. We talked about how having kids steals your ability to keep up with current events. Mike, who is the father of two little girls said " I didn't know Neil Armstrong died, but I watched Aladdin three times today."


We talked about triathlon training and the enigma that is both loving and hating running, we laughed and teased each other, and generally I felt like a 10 year old in a 37 year old body. I embraced being kid so much that I kept snorgling (this a snort/giggle) and asking people if they wanted to "sample my balls." My meatballs, duh. Did I say I'm lucky? Because I really am. These people make me feel lucky.


And then afterward, after we noshed on fancy pants ice cream across town at a little fancy pants ice creamery, (I had this most delicious salted pretzel and fleur de sel ice cream combo) I got to participate in something 10 year old me would have killed to do, I wandered around this ridiculous accessories store called Charming Charlie's and tried on strange hats and enormous cocktail rings while taking pictures of my friends. There was much snorgling. It was stupid fun. We put on fedoras and cowboy hats, bowed creations, veiled funeral hats and headbands with mini-hats attached. You really need to try on a mini-hat headband, it's the dumbest thing, but you'll kind of want one.

Kristen Ringwald?
Trying on ugly hats, except Kristy makes this one cute!
Liquid eyeliner and a very fetch hat.

So now that the birthday celebrations are all concluded for the year, dinner with family out of town, dinner with friends, and a fabulous meal with my mom and brother last weekend, complete with a cherry limeade pie that, while my mom may not have slaved in the kitchen to make, she certainly stood forever at the store trying to decide what to buy, I think 10 year old me would approve of how 37 year old me has celebrated. I think she would be thrilled with the people I've chosen to surround myself with, thrilled that I've found the kind of friendships and relationships that are so valuable, real and strong. And she and I both want to say thank you to my people. Thank you for celebrating with me this year, listening to my stupid meatball jokes and actually laughing, and for being exactly who you are, because you all are exactly who I need.

All photos courtesy of the superb Joe Sands, except those last three goofy ones, those are all me.


Wednesday, September 05, 2012

A Series Fool: 30 Second Book Reviews

I've become obsessed with mysteries and series this summer. Not one, not two, but four series. The Hannah Vogel mystery series set in 1930's Berlin from Rebecca Cantrell, the dystopian society series starting with The Giver by Lois Lowry, Tana French's loosely connected Irish murder squad series and finally Alan Bradley's charming Flavia DeLuce mystery series. Wow, that's a lot of series and a lot of murder. I've read some other books too this summer, but let me say right up front, I highly recommend all four series that I just mentioned. All of the books in these series are strong, engrossing and populated with lively, complicated characters, and some murder, ok, a lot of murder. But let's dive into my tiny reviews, because I've got Absolution by Patrick Flanery to get back to, and it's gooood so far, really good. So here we go...

Demon Fish by Juliet Eilperin - This nonfiction collection of essays is all about sharks, so I read it during Shark Week. Intriguing subject, but it dragged for me in some places, so I skimmed a bit. A thought-provoking look at how human encroachment is changing the lives of sharks and our relationship of fear and fascination with one of the earth's oldest living great predators. Sharks are beautiful animals and mysterious animals that even 260 pages of research and commentary can't solve.

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley - This, the third in the Flavia DeLuce series, our 11 year old chemist and self directed mischief maker and detective is off trying to solve another murder in her small 1950's town of Bishop's Lacy. She's up to no good and always finds the killer. Another perfect audio book. 

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell - Excellent recommendation from my dear friend and fellow book nerd, Kristen. It kept me company late one night when I was inexplicably awake from 2am to 5:30 am. I blame my parents' dog, Baxter who was whining in the other room during his first night staying at our house and Joe's late night Olympics viewing. But as soon as I finished this one I put the next three all on hold at the library, and then read them in speedy succession. I love the main character, German crime reporter Hannah Vogel. She is fiesty. She is a loner. She is a tough broad.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley - The fourth of the Flavia series, and the shortest. A light little Christmas story complete with double murder, midnight fireworks, and a vicious snow storm.

Broken Harbor by Tana French - Just about the perfect mystery/crime novel. This is the fourth of Tana French's Irish murder squad series and one of her best. This is a very procedural crime novel, but French's accomplished writing elevates it above the standard Patterson or DeMille.

A Night of Long Knives by Rebecca Cantrell - Hannah Vogel is back. Any book that begins with Nazis, a zeppelin, chloroform and a coiled rope escape out a window had me at "is this an Indiana Jones novel?" This isn't my favorite of the series, but it moves the story along and it has a zeppelin, damn it.  Also this quote -"A perfect man is one you don't know very well." It could read a perfect person.

Season of Storms by Susanna Kearsley- Skip this early work by Kearsley and go right for The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. This one didn't work for me. I just didn't like the story or the characters, at all.

A Secret Kept by Tatiana De Rosnay - Not great. Just not great at all. You know it's not great when you find yourself shouting at the French narrator of the audiobook and saying "I get it, you're depressed! Shut up, shut up, shut up!" I found the characters whiny, weak and boring. I found the relationship between the brother and sister a little strange. The descriptions of the French seaside were lovely, but that wasn't enough to keep me engaged. I stopped this one 1/2 way through for the lack of caring. I also guessed what the mystery at the heart of the book was, because I have 1/2 a brain. I loved Sarah's Key, but pass on A Secret Kept.

A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell - Hannah Vogel at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Things feel riskier in this book. Maybe it's because WWII feels so close, just right around the corner. The danger and the action is heating up.

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall - Lyrical, poetic, infuriating, melancholy and quite quite lovely.

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick - From nearly the first line you know this book won't have a happy ending, but the way that the author puts you right into the story is spellbinding. Full of lust and blood and sorrow and longing and confusion and striving and searching, I loved this book and it's story of an old fashioned small town watching and judging our two doomed lovers.

Over Time by Frank DeFord - Frank DeFord is a wonderful writer and the essay format of this book makes it super easy to bounce around and find topics that interest me most. My lack of love for sports was only a small hindrance in my enjoyment of the book. I told Joe it felt like a 1/4 of it was written in Spanish or something, but I muddled through because DeFord's voice and writing style almost make me care about sports. Almost.

Tick Tock by Dean Koontz - Just a silly, silly, silly book. This was an audiobook that I found myself listening to, laughing at it's most serious points and then turning it off half way through. Ugh, just dumb. No more Koontz for me for awhile.

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry - This is the second in Lowry's series that seems to follow three different communities, somewhere far into our future. I love me some dystopian fables and this series at a minimum makes me think about topics that don't often work their way into my normal reading. What do we value as a society? How well do we treat our weakest members? And what is the meaning of art without compassion and kindness?

A City of Broken Glass by Rebecca Cantrell - Oh, Hannah Vogel. Will you make it out of Germany before the Gestapo finally catches up with you?  Excellent as usual.

Thirteen by Susie Moloney - Eh. At least it was fast. Pretty much a Lifetime Television for Women movie version of a witch coven. I bet Tori Spelling or Jennifer Love Hewitt would jump at the chance to play the main character, cocktail waitress single mother Paula.

The Kids Are All Right by The Welch Kids - What happens when your soap opera star mother and oil entrepreneur father die within three years of each other and leave you and your three siblings broke and orphaned? Let the Welch kids tell you. They each have their own story to share, bouncing around amongst all four kids, it's a story of the power of family, memory and creating our own families from our friends.  I liked this one.

Messenger by Lois Lowry - Happy for a conclusion that ties all three books together and puts all three communities in the same time and place. And it makes me think, what parts of ourselves have we traded away for items that ultimately have little value to us?

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown - This is another Blogher book club review, so I'll have to wait to review it in a couple of weeks. But this book, based on 12 years of research into the effects of shame and vulnerability in our lives, is a book that sticks with me and moved me deeply. I'll write more soon.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor - I liked the stories in this collection. They are bare, a bit of hard work to get through sometimes, stripped down, but raw and a bit on the depressing side. Gorgeous poetic writing though.

Cell by Stephen King - This was a perfect audio book. I read several negative reviews that claim Mr. King has lost his way, isn't a good writer anymore, only writes crap nowadays, blah blah blah, but I couldn't disagree more. From the opening scene in a Boston park where a man viciously bites the ear off of a dog, to the final scene with a father holding both hope and a cell phone in his hands, I was hooked on this book. Fast paced, deeply disturbing plot twists, flawed but real characters, Stephen King knows how to tell a story. I enjoyed all 11 hours of Campbell Scott's reading and hated to see it end.

So what have you been reading lately?