Category Archives: Nonfiction

Scone Island – Frederick Ramsay The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor

Still reading and even more all over the map than during the challenge. In some ways I miss the discipline of one book and one blog post per day. But I would have to be an heiress to keep that up so it is something of a relief to let go of the deadlines. Oddly, though, I detest the daily grind of imposed work-for-hire that eats hours of time in research and writing to formula and for a pittance. It was slightly easier to face that when I wrote something just because I wanted to every day. That development could use more thought.

Scone Island was a pretty good adventure–political thriller, if you can imagine such a thing set on a sparsely inhabited tiny island off the coast of Maine with no electricity or phone service but plenty of spooks and bad guys out to get them. Frederick Ramsay writes convincingly about CIA operations and various National Security Agency type scenarios. His bio doesn’t list any insider experience though so I wondered for the whole book how much of it I could trust and how much wouldn’t pass scrutiny by a true intelligence agent.

The hero of the story is Ike Schwartz, a small-town sheriff now and a former undercover operative who is suddenly a target in a deadly web of assassinations. His serious heartthrob, Dr. Ruth Dennis, the president of a university, is recovering from a health trauma involving a broken leg as well as a brutal year managing a faculty mutiny and the two run away to Scone Island for some R&R. Ruth has inherited a cottage from her aunt and Ike slips a generator and a real coffee pot into their gear, not being much of a fan of roughing it. They arrive on Scone Island to hear about a fatal fall from a cliff that will affect, almost immediately, their own safety.

Lots happens. Some of it is very far out there. Good amount of tension and the requisite international issue at stake. Ruth’s mother Eden is a pistol. I liked it enough to read another one–it’s part of a series–but the location really did have its limits and the constant verbal sparring between Ruth and Ike was exhausting after a while.

The Happiness Advantage is Shawn Achor’s bible of how–and why–to be happy. It’s a positive psychology book that cites an impressive number of studies showing the effect optimism and a feeling of well-being can have on your health, career, productivity, longevity and other significant bits of your life. I really really liked the first half of the book in which Achor talks about the cult of the average, positive outliers, the power of your mindset, the tetris effect (getting stuck in a mind-loop), and, in general, how happiness precedes success and not the other way around. Lots of very good science in language a lay person can easily absorb. (Achor, like the Harvard grad student he was, footnotes his references copiously at the end of the book.)

The second half seemed to stretch on–and on. Achor is a corporate trainer and I think he just turned the advice too much into career and company success tips for me. I preferred the personal information and I’ve read (or been subjected to) most of the corporate remedy stuff before. Heavy social networking is one of Achor’s rules for achievement, for instance,  and that seemed tiresome, even though I know connection and community are mental health pluses. But Achor does have a fair amount to say about how your mind and attitude directly impact the minutest details of your existence so The Happiness Advantage holds up.  Stick with the early chapters unless you are a corporate manager trying to jazz your team out of a slump.

 The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work   Shawn Achor | Crown Business   2010

 Scone Island: An Ike Schwartz Mystery   Frederick Ramsay| Poisoned Pen Press  2012

The Journey of English – Donna Brook

Donna Brook’s The Journey of English states that the English language contains over a billion words, more than any other language, although we commonly use only about 200,000 of them. Judging from most conversations I hear, we use far fewer than that and I couldn’t begin to quantify how many of those 200,000 I may have encountered this year. Etymology is endlessly fascinating to me and this simple book is a good introduction to the evolution of English from the steppes of Siberia to the fast-food outlets in Guatemala City. It’s interesting to note that English is only about 5,000 years old–and most of that time the language existed in forms unrecognizable to us today. Chinese is approximately 5,000 years old as well but China’s isolation allowed Mandarin to develop in a much more homogenous way.

English is a ragtag vagabond, lurching from central Europe to the British Isles and picking up Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and French coloring through wars and migrations, raids and intermarrying, from Celtic stronghold to Roman Empire to Saxon and Angle conquests. Tracking the words and how they appeared where they did is better brain candy than a crossword puzzle. Old English gave us the days of the week and the words eat and sleep, as well as the great legends that are the basis for many of our defining stories. The imposition of Latinate Christianity gave us angel, purple, silk and school. The Normans handed off French influence in the guise of parliament, liberty, crown, treaty and tax. The Renaissance with its recovered classics infused English with more Latin and some Greek–most English reflects those two languages although the words we use for the lion’s share of our communication, the plainspoken short serviceable words, are from the Old English.

It’s possible to get lost in the origins of English, in the sources for scientific terms and the flourishes of the preserved manuscripts hand-copied by monks and the impressive vocabulary of one William Shakespeare–30,000 words–and the King James Bible. Between the British Empire and the rampant spread of American consumer culture and the web–English can be found everywhere. It travels well and leaves traces behind wherever it goes. We’ve planted a bit of English on the moon. Maybe intelligent beings picking up transmissions from earth in some distant galaxy already speak passable English–there’s a scary thought. But, although I wish I spoke other languages far better than I do, I’m glad I have English to write in and to read aloud. Whether you’re cussing or declaiming poetry, English is a very satisfying language to speak and hear–and read, of course. Just lose yourself in Dylan Thomas or shout out a little Mos Def, grab some Jane Austen. Toni Morrison or Bob Stone. It’s all good. Good–from Old English: “virtuous; desirable; valid; considerable; having the right or desirable quality…”

The Journey of English   Donna Brook | Clarion Books   1998

The Great Work of Your Life – Stephen Cope

Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu Institute for extraordinary Living, undertakes the challenge of relating the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita to the tricky prospect of discovering–and embracing–your true dharma. The Great Work of Your Life is the result. It’s a very easy read, but a reflective one. Cope tells the tale of Arjuna the warrior at the moment of battle, collapsing to the floor of his chariot in despair. In front of him are lined up neighbors and kinsmen who will die at his hand or kill him. Yet it is his destiny as a great warrior to proceed. He is paralyzed and he begs his old friend and charioteer for advice. What he gets is full-bore Krishna (the charioteer) and a relentless instruction about surrender, action and detachment that Arjuna can’t quite grasp for a while.

Cope relates the Gita to the lives of celebrated and ordinary figures: Gandhi, Beethoven, Camille Corot, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, a priest caught in a mid-life identity crisis, a Jungian therapist facing her own mortality, a college friend who believed he was the reincarnation of John Keats, the poet Keats himself.  The stories illustrate the ways in which people encounter their dharma, deny it, accept it, live it. Jane Goodall was drawn to animals from the time she was a young child and had the good fortune to have a sympathetic and supportive mother. Thoreau tried his luck as a writer in greedy Gotham, was chewed up and spit out and repaired to light isolation at Walden Pond (his mother brought him sandwiches and cookies–not the wilds of Borneo) to figure out who he was and what he should do about that. Walt Whitman wrote and rewrote his genius work Leaves of Grass but was entering a period of serious aridity when the Civil War broke out and he found himself all over again caring for wounded soldiers. Robert Frost turned his back on the literary world and bought a farm so he could write poems after he repaired a few fences and gathered the apples.

They are wonderful teaching tales and Cope skillfully draws the heart of the message from each life. The task of discovering your dharma and turning it into the hours and days of your life is similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, from the invitation to enter the unknown, through initial hesitations, eventual trust, the loss of all familiar, fear, epiphany, the forging of a new identity, a re-entry to the known world and the integration of this richer new self and all it implies. Embrace your dharma, Cope asserts, and things unfold without much prodding. You can’t evade loss and pain but you encounter ecstasy and calm assurance. It sounds like mindfulness to the nth degree–you live in the now, fulfilled and contented and very present, fully alive, even when facing death.

I liked the book a lot. I’m going to haul out my Mahabharata and re-read the Bhagavad Gita as soon as I have time to think about it and take it slow. Some things really can’t be rushed (another teaching in The Great Work...). This book didn’t fall into my lap–I was looking for it when I found it. But it arrived at a convenient moment, as I sunset a business and way of working that’s no longer working for me and attempt to create something new and exhilarating in the ruins. If I don’t have to return The Great Work of Your Life to the library before next week, I might just read it again.

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling   Stephen Cope | Bantam Books  2012

End This Depression Now! – Paul Krugman

The briefest of nods to Paul Krugman–as I need to get some sleep before another day of below-minimum-wage, hamster-wheel work–for his lucid, sane and consistent argument in favor of ending the current economic depression. I have always loved that he calls it like it is. “Recession” is a marketing term designed to brand this mess as less serious than it is. Krugman is careful but not cautious in his condemnation of the half-lies and half-measures that mire us in an economic downturn that is exacting an unequal and unconscionable price from many while enriching the already-rich few.

Spend to stimulate is the over-simplified shorthand for Krugman’s anti-austerity plan. Unemployment, underemployment, shrinking benefits and household worth, a mortgage debacle and all those sinking underwater homes in foreclosure–none of it is necessary and all of it is fixable. But there is no clear thought and no political will to counter the mumbled mumbo-jumbo from the Right and the freely-purchased influence of the rich.

End This Depression Now! digs into the causes and cures of the euro problems and the failing economies across the pond. It examines the myths of Chinese control of America’s economic future through debt and totals up the real percentage of our GDP that the deficit represents. Far less than you might have guessed and a fraction of the alarmist figures you’ve been sold. There are no rosy pictures in this formula for real recovery. We are in trouble and it will take some doing to get out of it. But less Sunday morning chat and more roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-the-right-thing will go a long way toward reversing the economic free-fall.

Worth reading, if only to sort out all the heated blustering about John Maynard Keynes.  Krugman is polite but he holds up a mirror to political leaders, economists and academics and the images are often less than attractive. We don’t have a money problem, Krugman asserts. We have a moral imperative to ease the burden of unemployment, create a possible future for young people entering the work force and remember the harsh lessons of our own history.  The U. S. has an urgent need to invest in restoring jobs to millions of state and local government workers, rebuild our national infrastructure and revisit the types of financial regulations that once protected us from fiscal fail.

I tend to believe him, but I’m no reliable judge. My attempts to master economics in a course offered by the U. S. Department of Agriculture when I worked in the Senate got derailed somewhere in the endless droning on about guns and butter. No patience for wonky academics when I had witnessed firsthand the worst slums of Port au Prince and the rag-and-cardboard neighborhoods that ringed Bombay.  I should have waded through Keynes back then, not Che Guevarra, and re-read the history of feudal England or stories about the Irish potato famine, not “Buddhist Economics” by E. F.  Schumacher.  Too late. Now I’ll have to content myself with Krugman, whom I tend to think is so spot on that his analyses regularly depress me. Still, End This Depression… is a hopeful book and maybe, after all his public carping, a Nobel Prize for economics and the sad proof that he’s been right all along, a few key decision makers will download the book to their kindles, so no one can tell what they’re reading, and see the light.

End This Depression Now!   Paul Krugman | W. W. Norton & Company   2012

Practical Science for Gardeners – Mary Pratt

What a Galapagos Island finch has to do with a dandelion may not be immediately apparent. But, in Mary Pratt’s excellent gardening/science book, they are both examples that validate the importance of the Linnean binomial system.  Practical Science for Gardeners is a marvel of scholarship and science trivia that treats the war between the Ladybirds and the aphids as a perfect example of the balance of nature. Parasites and predators–create lacewing hotels for your wintering insect police. Order nematodes from the organic gardening catalog to take care of the slugs. Tomato fertilizer will cause plants to flower. Too much self-pollination will cause a plant to develop “inbreeding depression.”

It’s autumn, the season when we lament the lack of a garden that means we have to buy a pumpkin at the grocer’s, not wait for the perfect moment to pick it from our homegrown patch.  And if we had a sunflower house, we would soon need to shake the dried seeds from the pod into a paper bag, lay them out between layers of paper to dream away the winter, and prepare to plant the whole seedful paper in some nicely composted soil in spring. Perhaps during the waxing or full moon. Although the moon thing is scientifically unproven. Pratt does offer some practical reasons for the folklore that have to do with tides and soaking the soil for newly germinating seeds. But, as she astutely observes, “the life sciences are a bit fuzzy round the edges.”

At this point you are saying, “Ha! Another one of those mad English gardeners!” And I reply, “Yes! Thank heavens for them.” The English know how to really get inside a garden. Pratt isn’t some dotty dowager puttering around a National Trust estate, though. She is an Oxford-trained zoologist with a master’s degree in biology who worked for the Wildlife Trusts. And now she gardens in Devon. Lucky her. She recommends small bibles for frustrated pest-killers like The Little Slug Book and, thankfully, isn’t as hard as she might have been on rabbits.   There are sections on choosing trees, composting, mixing green and flowering plants, biodiversity, soil maintenance and more. Really, mindful gardening is science and the more science you know the better prepared you are to keep those nasty slugs out of your pepper plants. Or whatever they love to eat best.

Practical Science for Gardeners is a book to tuck next to the seed catalogs to peruse on long, dark winter nights.  And then you should ask for a pair of genuine Wellies for Christmas. Order some ladybugs. Check the lacewing hotel for December guests. And know how to mix your own compost tea in the spring so you can let it sit and weaken before it’s needed. Watch where you use it, though. Natural or premixed chemicals, nitrogen fertilizer will kill a wildflower meadow.

Practical Science for Gardeners   Mary Pratt | Timber Press   2005

The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin

Viktor Frankl wrote compelling prose about the humanistic and optimistic attitudes that spelled the difference between survival and destruction in Nazi death camps. He was a trained psychiatrist and neurologist and he lived through a traumatic, brutal and nearly unimaginable historic event. His insights, like his experience, are profound and worth pondering. I have honestly believed for several years that we are on the cusp of an evolutionary shift that has already obliterated life as we knew it and made some things about how the late twentieth and nascent twenty-first centuries operate starkly undeniable. We are cast into a sere landscape with no maps. I’ll read anything that seems like a good idea to pick up threads of direction about how to live now. But most of the current crop of “do this, don’t do that” books are insubstantial and, frankly, dated.

It isn’t entirely fair to take something slight and demand profundity from it and I won’t do that with Gretchen Rubin’s chronicle of her year-long quest, The Happiness Project. Rubin makes no claims that her book will inspire a Rilkean moment in a reader. She says she was happier at the end of her year but she admits to being essentially the same person she was when she began the project, only nicer.  That’s good but pop science and psychology are written to appeal to a wide audience and Rubin’s book is more banal than epiphanic or brilliant. I was counting on a  read closer to the brilliant end of the spectrum. (Brilliant truth from the Heart Sutra: no expectations. Haven’t mastered that yet.)  I am so not a fan of writing that constantly refers to “research” showing something without citing the research. How do I know? What research? Maybe the research was flawed or biased. Why should I take your word for it? So I remain curmudgeonly but unconvinced.

The Happiness Project was an attempt by a Yale-educated lawyer, former Supreme Court clerk and published author, married to a successful spouse, also a Yale law grad (I think), living on the Upper East Side with two small healthy children and apparent financial security as well as a close and congenial family, to make her life better. Her goals were to blunt an inconvenient short temper, lose a snarky, snappish demeanor and appreciate the many blessings she acknowledges are the substance of her life. Those are admirable goals. She created a bunch of resolutions and a blog, probably had a heart-to-heart with her literary agent, and set out to remake the tenor of her days.

It’s a well-done self help book. There are elements you can try to create your own happiness project and a month-by-month report on what she tried and how she did. I admit she started to lose me when she purchased a very pricey personal trainer-led weights program at her local gym as part of an effort to be healthier. And there is the writing studio on the roof top of her apartment building, child-free. Probably a nanny. Time to start several groups that meet for supper and conversation about books and personal projects and whatever. This is a happiness project for people in the 1% who are crazy-busy and stressed about it but still manage to have a significant amount of time on their hands and the resources to bankroll a personal quest.

The sages cited in the book–and Rubin reads all the change artists, from Frankl to St. Theresa to the Dalai Lama to Anne Lamott and Thoreau–have words of wisdom, and the bibliography is a useful reading guide for your own course of study. The suggestions that worked for Rubin would make a power-packed magazine article but I started checking where I was in the year at about May or June.

Once upon a time I might have aspired to the protected middle-class cocoon of Rubin’s life but in the abrupt evolutionary now I could not relate.  You might, though. Schedule a Pollyanna Week, make a Resolutions Chart and get a pedometer. Do not follow her advice about healthy eating–it is woefully unevolved.  Do try the get-enough-sleep tip. I keep meaning to do that. And clean out your closet. You’ll feel better. You’ll find the few things that still fit you. If you live in Manhattan, they will all be black so that everything matches. That is the magic key to simplifying your life. Move to Manhattan. Be rich, if you can. Buy only black clothes. Take lots of pictures of your kids. And stop gossiping. There. Don’t you feel happier already? Thought you would.

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun   Gretchen Rubin | HarperCollins  2009