Skip to content

What We’re Reading: Self-Help Round-Up

2017 May 25

What We're ReadingI don’t know if it’s just the state of the world, or because I’m going through a breakup, or because all of that is happening all at once in my mid-twenties and it’s culminating in a quarter-life crisis, but I’m all about the get-your-shit-together self-help books these days. So if you, too, are just now realizing nobody ever taught you how to cope with anxiety, depression, heartbreak, political turmoil, environmental catastrophe, and the inevitability of losing everyone and everything in your life—while also somehow being a responsible adult with a good income-to-debt ratio—then I can’t recommend these books enough:

Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie KondoThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press, 2014)

I read this book while preparing for a move, and I can’t express how much Kondo’s insights helped me purge my possessions and minimize my lifestyle. If you are surrounded by so many things that you don’t even know what you own or where to find it, this book is for you. Change your life. Get rid of excess. Then get rid of more. Then surround yourself with people and things that bring you joy. It’s worth it.

Best advice: Don’t decide what to throw away, decide what to keep. Only keep things that spark joy, and get rid of everything else. Yes, everything.

Mindfulness on the GoMindfulness on the Go: Inner Peace in Your Pocket by Padraig O’Morain (Harlequin, 2014)

Great for keeping at your desk or in your bag, this little book can help you find opportunities for cultivating mindfulness at work, at home, on your commute, while waiting, while traveling, and before sleeping. Brief chapters explain why mindfulness helps with managing stress and anxiety while making room for creativity and thoughtfulness. The “on the go” exercises and quick tips are easy to incorporate anywhere, anytime. Spending even one minute focusing on your breathing can go a long way to improving your mind and mood.

Mind Over MoodMind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky (The Guilford Press, 1995)

Speaking of your mind and mood—if you are the kind of person who really likes doing their homework, then this workbook is for you. It was created by clinicians over twenty years ago but is still being recommended by therapists today—and for good reason. If you’re willing to take the time to read the lessons and do the exercises, you can create your very own DIY cognitive behavioral therapy practice, which I especially recommend if you are not going to therapy (and I’m the kind of person who will recommend therapy to everyone).

When Things Fall ApartWhen Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön (Shambhala Publications, 1996)

Let me take a moment to recommend every single book by Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. I just think you should start with this one. Written in the wake of her divorce and subsequent spiritual journey, it basically answers the question I’ve been asking myself for months: How do I go on? With advice on acceptance, openness, and compassion—starting with compassion for yourself—this book forces you to look inward and evaluate your habitual patterns, attachments, and addictions so you can let go of your ego and your fixed ideas and learn how to simply be.

Best quote: “Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”

The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanh (HarperOne, 2013)

Once you’ve learned how to be with yourself and reflect on your feelings, read this to learn how to communicate those feelings more openly and honestly in your relationships, at work, and with yourself. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s succinct, conversational tone makes his writing approachable and easy to digest. So even if Buddhism isn’t really your thing, the advice can guide you toward thinking, listening, speaking, and acting with understanding, kindness, and love.

What We’re Reading: May Round-Up

2017 May 4
by Wren

What We're ReadingMay is when spring really takes hold here in Minnesota, and it’s also coincidentally my (Wren’s) birthday month. Both the spring awakening and the pending mark of a new year for me makes this time of year feel especially magical in its newness and fresh perspectives. Even if it’s not your birthday, I hope this month marks the start of something new for you. Maybe a new habit, a new adventure, or a new book on your reading list. This round-up can help you with at least one of those new things. Happy reading and spring-vibing, folks!

Ice by Anna Kavan (Peter Owen Modern Classic, 2006)
Reviewed by Aaron

Ice is a stuttering slipstream novel that follows a nameless narrator through nameless cities in the face of an oncoming apocalypse. He trails a pale waif of a woman, alternating between parental worry and abusive obsession. Kavan’s prose coyly switches between sparse, realistic description and fantastical phantasmagoria. Ice is an evocative novel about war, trauma, and abuse.

Various works by Louise Glück
Previewed by Liz

I’m reading Louise Glück. I mean her poems from 1965 to 2012. In the poetry world, Glück is practically a household name, and not only because she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, former Poet Laureate, and winner of many other prizes and fellowships. Louise Glück has consistently offered the world poetry that offsets trying loss with image, challenges narrative logic with surprising diction, and speaks to various audiences with simple honesty. Because she looms so large in the tradition of contemporary American poetry, I wanted to go back, and see how her voice developed and changed throughout her career thus far. I’ve only just begun, but I’m already fascinated… some of her earlier works (from The House on Marshland (1975) in particular) feel like an emotional mirror. I’m so interested to see what else I notice as I read on.

We Are All Stardust: Scientists Who Shaped Our World Talk about Their Work, Their Lives, and What They Still Want to Know by Stefan Klein
Reviewed by Taylor 

I picked this book up at a time in my adult life when I just started getting really, really into science, and it was the perfect book to begin my foray into reading more nonfiction—books on history, economics, science, and space in particular. It’s filled with fascinating interviews between Stefan Klein and scientists and experts on their life’s work, with topics ranging from empathy, morality, memory and consciousness, to chance in history, motherhood, animal behavior, and the critical first three minutes of our planet’s existence.

Each interview introduced me to a new topic (and about five books the interviewee wrote or recommended) that I immediately wanted to know everything I could about. I reread a lot of pages while reading, just to be sure I was taking it all in, and because the chapters built off each other very well. Even across a range of topics, each discussion was ultimately about us, as people, and our shared humanity.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Previewed by Wren

After recently finishing 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso (another great, and slim, book to add to your list), I just switched to what might be a challenging read: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. The book is a three-part novella, telling of Yeong-hye’s sudden change to vegetarianism. Yet the story develops in a way that continuously surprises, shocks, and guts the reader (or so I’m led to believe by other reviews and the first handful of pages I’ve read). It’s told from the point-of-view of a different character related to Yeong-hye in each section of the novella. I’m currently in the first section, told from the point-of-view of her bland, kind of awful husband. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye changes, both in her own perspective, and in the perspectives of the three narrators—and in somewhat horrifying situations, including sex, violence, and a retreat from daily life. I can already tell it’s going to be a book that will haunt me after I finish, but nonetheless, I’m eager to sink my teeth into it.

What We’re Reading: What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

2017 April 20

What We're ReadingWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books, 2017)

Have you ever read a book and felt like the author inserted their stories straight into your mind, and you can’t quite shake them after? That’s how I felt after reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. I read this book about a month ago now, but the characters and stories still follow (haunt?) me.

The stories are all told from the perspectives of women. Men play key or supporting roles in some of the stories, but relationships between women—mothers and daughters especially—take the main stage here. The culture of Nigeria infuses many of these stories—some as the actual setting, others as familial/cultural ties. Many of the stories also employ magical realism, which adds to the way these stories stick to you. Arimah suspends reality in the details to achieve the big picture reality, placing her finger on the intuitive truth of the matter.

Some of the most haunting stories are the ones where the main characters seem to fight against their own nature, or their inherited nature/gender/class/grief, all the while circling around the inevitability of it. Stories such as “Who Will Greet You at Home”, which was originally printed in the New Yorker here. This story achingly embodies the way Arimah uses magical realism to suspend reality to better highlight the truth:

Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love. But first, she had to go to work.

As Ogechi crafts baby after baby, our hearts break as we watch in horror the cycles passed on by class and gender. This is what I mean: these stories will latch onto you, not unlike Ogechi’s baby. These stories reveal truths that are sometimes hard to see; yet Arimah tells these difficult truths in such a way—through gorgeous, crafted, precise language—that her reader can’t help but digest them.

Another factor of these unrelenting stories lies in their surprise. Despite some element of inevitability that I described earlier, Arimah still finds moments to flip the reader upside down, disorient, and surprise. An example of this is the opening story, “The Future Looks Good”, which starts with a woman knocking at a door, and the rest of the story backtracks leading up to that moment. The final sentences deliver a swift shock. Yet other stories take their time and don’t upend the reader with surprise, but rather, coax us along with their slow build. With this mix of styles, Arimah deftly balances the danger of over-exerting her reader while calling our attention to difficult, soul-wrenching things.

I had the opportunity to meet Lesley and hear her talk about this book in my role as producer of The Loft Podcast, where she was a guest recently (you can listen to the episode here). One of the things she said that I immediately felt echoed my own experience, was how there was an early point in her career as a writer where she knew what and how she wanted to write, but didn’t have the skill to write it yet. I feel that particular sense of frustration in my own current capacity as a writer. I was talking to my dear friend Timothy (yes! our same dear Hazel & Wren friend and past contributor!) about this recently, who in response sent me this article/video featuring a quote from Ira Glass on success. In it, Glass says, “Nobody tells people who are beginners […] that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, […] It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer”.

Clearly Arimah has found the sweet spot where her work has met up with her taste and ambition to create this magical, haunting, groundbreaking collection of stories. And, my fellow worrying writers: maybe there’s hope for us, too.

 

What We’re Reading: April Round-Up

2017 April 6

What We're ReadingSpring is slowly stretching out its green tipped limbs here in Minnesota. With the new season comes renewed curiosity, and that translates to everything from daily decisions to my book selections. I think you’ll see that echoed in today’s staff round-up, too. What are you reading that is fulfilling your curiosity these days?

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson (HarperCollins, January 2017)
Reviewed by Cassidy

Mary Addison brutally murdered a baby. Allegedly. At least, that’s what the judge decided when he sentenced her to “baby jail” when Mary was just nine years old. Now Mary is 15, and though she’s stuck in a group home with a crew of her violent and volatile peers and a case officer who couldn’t care less, she’s determined to make the most out of her life. . . until she becomes pregnant with her boyfriend, Ted. Mary is suddenly faced with a choice: stay in the system and give up her baby, or tell the real truth of what happened that night that three-month-old Alyssa lost her life. This book is one part thriller and one part searing indictment of the prison industrial complex (think Orange is the New Black meets Walter Dean Myers meets The Bluest Eye), rattling along at breakneck pace until the very last page. Oh, and no spoilers, but if you’re a big fan of twists, this book contains the be-all, end-all of surprise endings.

The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria, translated by Ramon Glazov (Liveright Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Josh

I’m caught between two books, one nearly finished and one nearly started. Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (translated by Ramon Glazov) is a weird, scary story that combines a strange, Borges-esque Library, a pseudo-Woolfian collective, temporary psychosis, and a narrator trying to uncover how all of this strangeness disappeared into the past. It’s a small book, and I’m savoring every little bit of it. Once I’m out of this nightmare vision of Turin, I’ll leap into Yoon Ha Lee’s Hugo-nominated science fiction novel Ninefox Gambit, about which I know very little but for which I am totally excited!

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, 2016)
Reviewed by Taylor

Despite my fascination with octopuses, I didn’t know much about them before reading this book. First of all, I learned that it’s octopuses, not octopi. I learned that octopuses have complex nervous systems that dominate the arms, where they have an excellent sense of touch—and taste. I learned that octopuses taste with their suckers, passing food from arm to arm to mouth, where they have a sharp beak like a parrot. I learned that there’s still so much more to discover about these intelligent, playful, problem-solving, color-changing, shape-shifting escape artists.

Intrigued by octopuses, author and naturalist Sy Montgomery makes regular visits to the New England Aquarium, followed by a sudden ambition to get scuba certified, all along the way meeting people who share her unexpected love for the eight-armed creatures. In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery chronicles the observations and intimate encounters she shared with each octopus she came to know, weaving together thoughtful, moving stories of her friends—humans and underwater aliens alike—while exploring the question of consciousness and the remarkable connections made between species.

Shade the Changing Girl #1-7 by Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, et al (DC Comics/Young Animal, 2017)
Reviewed by Aaron

Take one birdlike alien from a parallel dimension. See her adopted by the most boring parents her sci-fi world has ever known. Then drop her
into the body of a hateful (and hated) Earthling teen. This is the formula that Shade the Changing Girl is built on. The series inherits a name and aesthetic from comics that positively ooze the times they were made: Steve Ditko’s psychedelic Shade the Changing Man from 1978 and 1990’s mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know reboot, the Changing Girl incorporates its forerunners’ lore without being bogged down by it; in fact, Shade queers just about everything: sci-fi, adoption, sexuality, family, and home. It’s a comic about the people that exist between and outside of accepted norms. Shade’s world is a Guillermo del Toro fantasy colored by Lisa Frank, and I can’t get enough.

Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Reviewed by Wren

Melissa Febos visited the Loft (where I work) last month. I hadn’t read any of her work prior to her visit, but let me tell you: I have officially reached fan-girl status. When researching prior to her visit, I came across this essay, “The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act” and immediately signed up for her full-day short essay workshop and bought Abandon Me. I also found out via Twitter that not only do we share the same first name (ICYMI, my real name is Melissa, not Wren), but we also share the same Myers Briggs classification of ENFJ. YUP, FAN GIRL, HI. One thing (out of many things) Febos said in the workshop that really stuck with me was (paraphrased): tell your story with enough specificity that it reveals a universal truth. Her essays and memoirs do exactly this. Febos has a very different background than my own, but each essay resonates with a thread of universality within my own experiences. The essays in this collection juxtapose the legacies left by both her birth father and the sea captain father who raised her, and delve further into her relationships with drug addiction, love, and other familial relationships. Abandonment is an overarching theme that runs throughout these essays, and Febos doesn’t shy away from the raw, tender spots of her own story. This is a beautifully lyric, heart-opening exploration of her life and the universality of vulnerability.