Playing Big

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr

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This women’s career self-help book is focused on women who have not quite reached their high potential. It’s a much more inclusive, less corporate version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Mohr strikes a delicate balance–asking women to take responsibility for their success while acknowledging the pervasiveness of discrimination, the double bind, and other factors that limit them. She explains the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and gives solid advice for motivation and confidence. She also includes a lot of examples of women diving into hobbies and activism as a way of “playing big,” decoupling women’s ambition from striving for prestige and money in the business world. Her advice is mostly focused on building confidence and on encouraging women to take bigger risks. She hopes to inspire women to stop constantly putting off focusing on their goals, to refuse to settle for mediocrity. Along with The Confidence Code, I’d say this is my new favorite self-help book targeting women and their careers.

Mohr does discuss parenting and the ways that family plans change and limit women’s careers. But she doesn’t talk about how for many women, getting married and/or having children is itself the way that they “play big” and reach for their dreams. Planning a family and making the decision to conceive a child or buy a house could be the thing that makes them excited, that gives them the feelings of awe and excitement that Mohr names pachad and yirah. Maybe that’s controversial to say, but it’s a feeling I have had and that many women share. It’s hard to talk about family-making as a dream without implying that all women will be totally content, with their ambitions completely satisfied and their talents fully utilized, by the work of raising children. Maybe Mohr believes that women don’t need as much encouragement to leap wholeheartedly into plans for family as they do for career and personal development. I’d agree with that, so or that reason I can understand why Mohr focused instead on career and creative pursuits. She wrote this book at an interesting moment in her life–as she was pregnant with her first child. I will be interested to see how motherhood influences Mohr’s later writing.

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.

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Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.

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The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

Books on Home Decor

As I wrote last year, my family recently moved into a new house. With all the other changes in our family, it took us a long time to settle in. We wanted to take the opportunity to make our home more comfortable, functional, and attractive while everything’s in flux. So I did some reading about home decorating and organization.

However, I think I am naturally a horrible audience for these kinds of books. I have such a lack of interest or talent in these matters that small suggestions sound like mandates to me. I get overwhelmed and end up making mental lists of reasons why none of the suggestions will work for me. It’s hard for me to see any of this kind of material as ‘inspirational’ because it always seems primarily ‘aspirational’–all of it seems covered in assumptions about money and class. And if it’s not about money and class, then it’s about portraying an image of your family as together and happy and fun-loving in a facebook-photo, surface-y way. Every once in a while I find an idea that I like because it might actually make things run more smoothly or conveniently, or it’s a way to make an unattractive thing look better with little effort. But mostly reading this kind of material just makes me feel inadequate, poor, baffled, and frustrated.

I’m totally willing to own this reaction as a flaw in my own character rather than a problem with the genre or with any particular book. For the most part. Here are reviews of two books on the topic.

First I read:

Life’s Too Short to Fold Fitted Sheets: Your Ultimate Guide to Domestic Liberation by Lisa Quinn

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Of course I loved the title of this book. I was excited about the idea of liberating myself domestically by eschewing stupid chores as pointless and oppressive. I liked Quinn’s ideas about overcoming perfectionism, but found them hard to apply because she and I set our standards in such different places. When she talks about lowering her personal standards, she still ends up placing them somewhere that feels unreachable for me, so it actually ended up feeling disempowering, although I know the opposite was intended.

When Quinn suggested caviar as a pantry staple, she lost me for good.

And then I read this book:

Design Mom: How to Live with Kids: A Room-by-room Guide by Gabrielle Stanley Blair

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This book was suggested to me by A Practical Wedding, a blog community I like and trust. They said it was approachable and realistic, even when I pressed them that my idea of approachable and realistic is usually very different from that of someone who’s writing a book about home decor. So the fact that my reaction to this book was somewhat similar to the one I had to the first one tells me the problem is me, not the book.

My favorite suggestions were the ones that focused on function and convenience. Blair likes flexibility, durability, and fun stuff on the walls. She suggests which kinds of rugs, sofas, chairs, tables, floors stand up best to the messes of kids. This is useful if you’re building a house from scratch or buying all your furniture new all at once, but may be frustrating to read if you’re already locked into something that’s less than ideal.

Blair’s explanations for for her principles and ideas sometimes felt short and lacking nuance to me. Little things bugged me about the assumptions behind her suggestions. She said a dining room is pointless, assuming that all kitchens are big enough to hold a table, when fewer than half the homes we looked at while house-hunting had eat-in kitchens. She has a whole section on the living room and another one on the family room, and another section on what she called “the family office,” which means her book is meant for people whose houses are big enough to include dedicated rooms for these three functions (our old house wasn’t). She had a page about how she doesn’t allow any merchandised character clothing or decor in her house without explaining why this is important. She blithely dismissed problems that may come from siblings sharing rooms as no big deal, which seemed nonsensical to me based on my childhood experience.

I don’t claim to have much taste, but the pictured rooms didn’t appeal much to me personally. I guess this particular shabby-chic hipster-with-kids aesthetic isn’t my thing. Blair also has a thing for what she calls “industrial chic” and that’s also very much not me.

People who like this genre and already don’t feel overwhelmed and attacked by the mere suggestion of improving their space will probably like this book. One interesting aspect of the book is its asides on parenting tips, giving ideas for things like movie nights, one-on-one check-ins with each child, and chores.

Best Books of 2015

I picked out my favorites of the books I’ve read and reviewed this year. Here they are below, separated by genre:

Best Fiction

Sevenwaters series by Juliet Marrilier

Royal Assassin by Robin Hobbs

Best Memoir

Poser by Claire Dederer

Yes Please by Amy Pohler

Best Nonfiction

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Best YA

Winter by Marissa Meyer

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Worst

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

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In this book, journalist Jon Ronson explores the concept of shame and the way it is wielded as a weapon of social control. He begins with a story in which he was the person heaping online shame on some men who impersonated him on Twitter, and who had strange academic-sounding justifications for doing it. But he spends most of his time telling the stories of several people who have been publicly shamed on the internet, most notably Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco, the woman who made the tasteless AIDS joke on Twitter while boarding a plane to Africa. This allows him to show both sides of the issue, to explore how satisfying it can be to shame someone we feel deserves it, and the devastating consequences for the victims. The conclusion seems to be that shaming destroys lives without reforming them, and the satisfaction of participating in an online pile-on isn’t worth the bad karma. It’s a fascinating topic, and one worth learning about for anyone who has felt profound shame or feared others’ shaming reactions.

Modern Romance

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

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I picked this book up because I liked Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation, and enjoy his stand-up. This is different from most books by comedians, though. It’s not just a bunch of humorous essays and personal stories. Actual research went into this. Ansari (with the help of NYU sociologist Eric Klingenberg) conducted focus groups on four continents to put this book together.

The result is a combination of sociology and self-help. The book is as fun to read as a nonfiction book can be, with jokes from Ansari and a fascinating topic. A generous number of pages focus on text message etiquette and the psychological games we play with our phones. One of the main concerns of the book is the paradox of excessive choice, the way that having too many options paralyzes us from making decisions and commitments. I tended to agree with Ansari’s advice and evaluations of the current dating scene.

My main takeaway from the book was that I’m really, really, REALLY glad I got off the dating market a long time ago, and dear God I hope I never have to re-enter it. And Aziz Ansari is pretty amusing. The audiobook has him doing funny voices and unscripted asides, so it may be preferable to the book, although it has graphs and charts and funny pictures. But you’ll have to listen to Ansari calling you lazy for picking the audiobook.

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins

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As the title makes clear, this book offers a hopeful message to anyone who struggles socially in middle and high school. Quirk theory says that the things that make people stand out as weirdos in school are exactly the things that make people successful as adults. And that’s not just because of the tech industry. It’s because following a passion, knowing yourself, and having the courage to be different are rewarded in adult life even more than they’re punished in school. I thought the most valuable part of the book was the explanations for how and why middle-and high-schoolers form groups and cohere the way they do. Developmentally, they’re wired for conformity and enforcing narrow social rules. The parts of the book that felt more like sociological research were broadly relevant and important. It helped me to understand and empathize with my younger self and the people I went to school with. The recommendations for students, parent, and teachers at the end of the book seemed right on.

There are in depth profiles of several students from different types of cliques from different parts of the country, following them through a year of their high school career. The scenes from these teenagers’ lives felt like excerpts from YA novels sometimes. Each of the teens was given a challenge to grow and expand their social circle. I thought some of this info got repetitive and might have been cut. It was valuable to get to know a few particular students and see how the popularity game affected them all, but fewer pages would have been needed to accomplish this goal.

My one biggest complaint about the book is that part of the book felt like a bait-and-switch when it was revealed that one of the people profiled was actually a teacher, not a student. The point is that adults experience bullying and social exclusion as well, and that when this happens among adults in a school, there is a trickle-down effect on the students. That’s a point worth making, certainly, but I don’t feel the surprise technique was necessary, and it felt dishonest. Some of the stories of teacher favoritism and bullying felt a bit exaggerated to me, but I guess I can’t say that never happens.