Archive | Books

Tips For Adulthood: Five Things I Learned From Re-Reading The Artist’s Way

journaling

journalingOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood. (Whoops! It’s a Thursday! Sorry, folks!)

I rarely re-read books. That’s partly a space thing  – I live in a small house – and and partly that there’s just too damn much out there I want to read to bother going back.

But this past week I’ve had the very odd experience of not just re-reading a book, but doing so immediately after putting it down. The book in question is Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way, a best-selling self-help book designed to help you unblock your creativity.  Doing this three-month course has been one of the big projects I’ve tackled since being laid off from my job. And the reason I re-read it is that the very last task Cameron assigns her readers when they’ve completed their 12 weeks is to go back and re-read the book, before doing anything else.

It’s an amazing book and has been a transformative experience for me both creatively and personally (more on that another time). And yet, I was still skeptical, and considered whether I should ignore this task altogether. But I trust Cameron, so I gave it a shot.

Here are five things that really made sense to me only when I re-read the book for a second time:

a. Morning Pages Matter. These are the three pages of hand-written writing you do every day when you wake up. They are *the* most important element of the creative recovery. I was very open to this idea when she suggested it, but I thought it would serve merely as a way to dump all the anxiety out of my head that had accrued overnight while I was sleeping, so that I could put that aside before I started writing. (It does.) I never imagined the morning pages would also serve my writing directly . Since starting to journal first thing every morning, ideas have emerged that have been directly channeled into blog posts, personal essays, fiction and my book project itself. When I went back through the book and also re-read my morning pages, I could trace this evolution very clearly.

b. The Artist’s Date is a Date. The other pillar of Cameron’s exercises is a weekly (or more) “artist’s date” – what she describes as “a block of time set aside to nurture your creative consciousness.” It took me about four weeks until I realized that I’d gotten this concept entirely wrong. I thought the Artist’s Date was just about setting aside time to execute a creative project (e.g. writing). So I keep giving myself a pat on the back when I spent some time writing every day. “Heh,” I thought. “I’m doing give artist’s date  a week – this is easy! But that’s *not* what the Artist’s Date is. It’s about going out and doing something fun to fuel your creativity, not your creative project itself. So going for a walk and collecting leaves counts. Grabbing your guitar and singing a tune counts. I started taking an improvisation acting course – that’s my main artist’s date these days. I’m so glad I figured this out!

c. Affirmations: External vs. Internal. To jump-start the creative recovery process, Cameron suggests that you make a list of “affirmations”- i.e., specific pieces of praise you’ve gotten from other people that will make you feel more confident about undergoing your journey of creative self-discovery. My big realization when I read the book through for a second time was that while all of my affirmations when I started the course were external – i.e,. a letter of gratitude from a colleague, an inspiring comment from a reader of my blog – by the end of the course they were largely internal – i.e., me telling myself something positive about my writing/myself. Cameron never says that’s supposed to happen but I am very happy that it did.

d. Images help imagine you into your future self. Cameron also advocates compiling an ongoing collection of images of things you like and/or signify your future self as a way to remind you about the tangible things that contribute to your creative happiness. At first, I was dubious. I’m not a terribly visual person and I didn’t feel like taking time out of my day to hunt for images of a typewriter on Google. But I did it (I’m an upholder, after all!), and soon I found myself making a list of images I wanted to collect – like making jewelry and reading on beaches and other aspects of the “ideal life” I’m composing for myself – and adding to that folder from time to time. Re-reading the book reminded me of my initial (misguided) reluctance to do the image homework.

e. Creativity and God. Cameron is very religious and she makes this very clear from the get-go, even though she doesn’t force you to buy into the concept. If you’re more comfortable talking about a “creative force,” so be it – all of her advice still applies. I’m deeply ambivalent about religion and so initially the whole God thing didn’t work for me. I was actually worried early on that it might put me off the whole process. But I hung in there and discovered that not only did Cameron’s vision of God work for me – (she likes to think of God as a generous, supportive force rather than a punitive, miserly one), I realized that sorting this out was absolutely fundamental to the creative catharsis I subsequently underwent.

If you’re thinking of a holiday gift for someone and you sense they may have an artist trapped deep inside them, I’d urge you to get them this book.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Image: Journaling by Seth Barber via Flickr

Amanda Wakes Up: Challenging Your Own Political Biases

shaking hands

shaking handsFrom time to time, I make recommendations about books on this blog which I think speak to some aspect of being a grown up .

Today’s pick is Alisyn Camerota’s Amanda Wakes Up, a fictional account of a journalist who gets a big career break when she’s promoted to be an anchor on television news, only to discover that her dream job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s a fun and funny whirlwind account of what it’s really like to work in TV news – leg bronzer and all – written by a consummate insider. (Camerota is a co-host of CNN’s New Day and previously worked at Fox News for many years. She is also – for the record – a friend of mine and while that is definitely why I bought the book, it is definitely not why I’m reviewing it.)

So why talk about this book on a blog about adulthood? Because in addition to treating the themes of news-as-entertainment, sexism in the workplace and office romance, the book also hits on a powerful challenge that we all face as we grow older: how to question our own political biases.

In the story, the title character Amanda is at times obliged by her bosses at the mythical FAIR news – whose motto: “True and Equal” may ring true (and equal?) – to go easy on some of her guests, instead of adopting a harder-hitting tone. She feels that this is beneath her dignity as a journalist and also threatens to make her look like a mouthpiece for a maverick political outsider who is taking voters by storm with his bold, if not always accurate, relationship to the truth during an election season. (Imagine!)

At other times, however, her job also forces her to talk to people on the other side of the political divide and to take their concerns seriously. She comes to appreciate that while she may appear to have nothing in common with gun rights supporters  in New Hampshire, for example, she really likes them as people and in talking to them, is able to appreciate them as more than just a cliché. Meanwhile, others around her – including her boyfriend – carry on living in their bubbles, as most of us do, because they aren’t forced to ever step outside of them.

The book reminded me of a period in my own life when I was working as a journalist for an online political magazine and both of my editors were openly pro-life, as were several of my colleagues. I think it was the first time that I’d been around that many pro-lifers in my adult life. I wrote the occasional piece about abortion and abortion rights for this outlet, and I always felt that I got a lot more push back on those stories than on other things that I wrote.

Initially, this frustrated me. How can they question that? I would think to myself, assuming that my take on the facts was not only correct, but manifest. But it wasn’t, to them anyway. And in giving those pieces a lot more scrutiny, my editors forced me to acknowledge how my own political biases were coloring my writing about those issues. Ultimately, I came to be really grateful that they’d put me through my paces because it enabled me to see things that I assumed were obvious (and were, to me) but which weren’t necessarily so for many others. And that, in turn, made me a better journalist.

While a plea to engage seriously with “the other” politically may sound like fairly well-trodden ground, it’s amazing how rarely it happens these days. Atul Gawande wrote a powerful piece in The New Yorker recently in which he recounts his conversations with regular Joes and Janes from his Ohio hometown about healthcare. He realizes how – despite appearing to be miles apart politically – all of these people are really fairly close to one another when it comes to their fundamental views about healthcare. And so, presumably, are the rest of us, if we could ever just sit down and have that conversation.

None of which is to say that you need to move to the political center in order to be a grown up. But particularly in today’s hyper-polarized political arena, it wouldn’t hurt to dip in and out of there now and again, if for no other reason than to check your own assumptions.

Image: Shaking Hands by Geralt via Pixabay

Advice for Writers Struggling with Genre: Ask This Question

bookshelf

bookshelfIf you’ve ever thought about writing a book, the very first thing anyone will tell you is to figure out which “shelf” it will sit on in a bookstore. It’s not enough to simply have a topic, or even an angle into a topic. You need to know who’s going to buy this book. Because book publishing, like anything else, is a business and the key to a successful business is knowing your market.

I knew all of this, of course. Over the years, I’ve been in enough writing groups and consumed enough resources devoted to the art and science of getting published that I knew that were I someday to approach an agent with an idea for a book, I’d need to be able to provide a cogent answer to this question.

And then someday arrived and I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to answer it.

Let me back up. I’ve been working for several months on a book about…drumroll please…swimming and adulthood. After more than 25 years as a “casual runner” – someone who ran three times a week to stay fit – my body was telling me that that I could no longer run. The reasons why I needed to stop running aren’t all that interesting. (Well, OK, something called Piriformis Syndrome, if you must know…) But the upshot was that, on the advice of my doctor, I began – somewhat reluctantly – to swim.

This obviously not an entirely new topic for me. This blog’s strapline – “Finding Yourself In Adulthood” – is all about conceptualizing adulthood as a journey, not a destination. But whereas the blog tackles topics ranging from work and parenting to therapy and the arts in a much more general way, the daily act of swimming enabled me to analyse these subjects through a single prism. In essence, swimming serves as a metaphor through which to explore what it means to be a grown up in the contemporary age.

But even after I started writing this book, I still struggled with where it fit on the proverbial bookshelf. Was it an extended meditation on swimming itself, Like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies?  Was it a sports memoir a la Gerald Marzaroti’s Late to the Ball about picking up a new skill (tennis) in midlife? Was it a humorous, loosely themed take on daily life, modelled on David Sedaris or Sandra Tsing Loh?  Or a was it a collection of more serious essays like Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable?

On alternate days it felt a bit like all of these.

It didn’t help that when I showed my précis (2 page overview) of the book to a few friends I got very different advice. One friend thought that it needed to be funnier, more like my daily status updates which I post on Facebook recounting the cast of characters I run into at my local swimming pool. Another friend thought that it should be a novel. Someone else advised me to convert it into an inspirational journey, the sort of Eat, Pray, Love of swimming.

Instead of writing the book, I began to obsess about genre.

And then, one day, at the tail end of a dinner party while chatting about this problem with a friend, I had my Eureka moment. My friend is a novelist who has written several novels in the Lad Lit genre and is on the cusp of becoming a sensation with his latest work-in-progress, which has already been snatched up by a major New York imprint. (He’s also sold the film rights. As he put it so beautifully, “Who knew that becoming an overnight success took so long?”)

After I regaled him with all of my anxieties about what the book could and should be, he looked at me and simply said: “Write the book that only you could write.”

It wasn’t rocket science. Nor was some dark, heretofore unknown secret of the publishing world. But for me, it was sort of like that age-old adage: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” And just like that, I immediately felt better.

Because I realised in that moment that I actually *had* been writing the book that only I could write all along. While it had elements of several different styles, at the end of the day the book I was writing was essentially a self-help book, albeit one very much rooted in my own experience. (I’ve since learned that there is a name for this sub-genre – self-help memoir or prescriptive memoir. Thank you, Jane Friedman.)

For me, my friend’s throwaway line (heartfelt, to be sure, even if infused with a few glasses of red wine), was clarifying: I need to stop obsessing over what other people think my book is meant to be. That comes later. For now, the book is already what I need it to be: a place to bring my voice and my insights to a topic I’ve long been passionate about with a fresh angle.

In a year where my new year’s resolution was to embrace authenticity, that feels pretty good.

Image: Bookshelves by Hernán Poo-Camaño via Flickr

Tips For Adulthood: Five Self-Help Books That Changed My Life

self helpOn occasional Wednesdays, I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve never been much for self-help books.

As a general rule, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. And for a long time I think I was a bit of a snob where self-help books were concerned, thinking they were somehow low brow.

I was wrong. In the past few months, I’ve had occasion to read a couple of self-help books that have had a profound impact on how I want to move forward with my life. And in reflecting back, I realize that there have been a few others along the way that also left their mark.

So today I’m going to share five self help books that changed my life – organized by theme – in the hope that one of these might motivate you to change some aspect of your life that you’re not entirely satisfied with either.

Before I begin, If I can offer one piece of (self-help) of on my own, it would be that you not “dabble” in these books. While it’s fine to start and stop and/or to read them alongside something else, be sure that you read each one start to finish, because each one has its own internal logic which builds, chapter by chapter.

Above all: do the exercises. They are there to force you to confront tough questions about yourself and you won’t progress if you don’t use these tools to identify your strengths – as well as whatever it is that’s holding you back.

Finally, be patient:  some of these books are deceptively short. You might spend an entire month on one page before moving on to the next chapter. That’s just fine.

To wit, five self-help books that changed my life:

1. Happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s happiness franchise needs no introduction. She has a popular blog, several books and a podcast, all geared towards how to be happier in life. Gretchen’s basic philosophy is that through better self-understanding, most of us can make even tiny changes in our daily life that would make us happier, regardless of our baseline. So it’s not necessarily about rushing out and buying a new espresso machine or embarking upon an extreme sport vacation. Rather, small things like figuring out if you’re a chronic under-buyer or over-buyer and shopping accordingly or adopting a personal motif to inspire your creativity can improve your mood on a daily basis. Personally, I found her advice about singing in the morning to work wonders.

2. Career Change. I’m a huge fan of one of the most well-known guides to career change ever written: What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles. This book is so famous it has almost become a cliché. But when I left academia to go into journalism, I locked myself in a café several hours a day for several months and did nothing but follow this book’s script. The book’s basic premise is that to make a meaningful career change, you need to zero in on two variables: what you like and what you’re good at, and where these overlap (harder than it sounds). Six months later, I had a great job as a producer with Chicago Public Radio. I still recommend this book every time someone asks me if I have any advice on how to change careers without spending more than $15.

3. Creativity. I’m shouting to anyone who will listen about Elle Luna’s amazing The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion. Like “Parachute,” this book is also partly about how to finding meaningful work and/or embark upon a career change. But it’s so much more. It’s about going to the very core of who you are and figuring out how to be authentic to that self – what Luna calls our “must.” It isn’t an easy or comfortable journey. (Try the “write your own obituary” exercise and you may well end up in tears.)  But the book is utterly inspiring because Luna believes so firmly that each of us really does have an amazing gift inside. We just need to figure out how to unlock that creativity and release it into the world. Bonus: because the author is a visual artist, the layout and design of this book are worth the shelf price in and of themselves.

4. Decluttering. Yeah, yeah I know. The whole decluttering thing is soooo…now. But Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever is another deceptively short and simple book that’s loaded with so much more. Kondo’s essential message is that most of us are living with untold amounts of clutter in our lives that simply doesn’t “spark joy.” Sure, as one of the friends I recommended this book to put it: “Your socks need to ‘relax’? Has it crossed your mind that this lady might be a teensy bit OCD?” (If you google her video on how to fold the perfect underwear drawer, you might find yourself agreeing…) But by the last chapter you will forgive her everything because what she’s really trying to do is to use tidying as a vehicle for achieving clarity in our lives (e.g., change careers/get a divorce/take up windsurfing/etc.) If we can get rid of all our excess stuff, and pare down to the things that we really love, we’ll not only see our lives more clearly, we’ll be happier and more relaxed.

5. Platforms. This one is for all you aspiring writers out there who think you have a book in you. I’m currently reading Christina Katz’ Get Known Before The Book Deal. It’s the second time I’ve read this book and I’m finding it much more useful this time around, possibly because I have a much clearer idea for a non-fiction book proposal now than I did when I picked this up several years ago and was vaguely thinking about writing a novel. This book is written for all those aspiring non-fiction writers who want to be an “expert” in something but haven’t yet created their platform. It shows you how to do this, step by step. I found the chapters on identifying your target audience to be particularly useful.

How about you. What self-help book would you recommend?

Image: Self Help Books by Angie via flickr.

Coloring Books for Adults? Cheaper Than Therapy!

coloring books grown ups

Crayons

LONDON – Have you heard? Five out of the top ten best sellers on Amazon right now are coloring books… for grown ups!

That’s right, folks. Drop the briefcase. Cash in that advanced degree. The secret to happiness and success in life lies in that box of Crayolas your three-year-old is clutching.

If, like me, you were initially skeptical when news of this trend hit your inbox, you’re in good company. As a columnist in Britain’s Daily Telegraph so eloquently put it: Has the creeping infantilization of the adult world reached a new nadir?

I think the answer is “maybe.”

I say “maybe” because there’s not just one version of the adult coloring book making the rounds these days. The fabulously ironic Sad and Useless website had this hilarious send-up of what it looks like when grown-ups start drawing their fantasies. One caption proclaims, “It’s like kindergarten, but with more drinking!” Personally, I love the “Hipster or Homeless” exercise, where you’re supposed to take two identical images of a bearded man in a jacket and make one look respectable and the other … not so much.

But before you choke on your own snark, I’d like to invite you to step back for a minute and reflect a bit more on the latest development in the get-in-touch-with-your-inner-child movement

Read the rest of this post over on The Broad Side...

In Defense of Mark Zuckerberg’s Book Club

booksforzuckHave you heard? Mark Zuckerberg wants to start a book club. As one of his New Year’s Resolutions for 2015, the 30-year-old CEO of Facebook will commit to reading one new book every two weeks. He has already set up a Facebook page “The Year of the Book” and invited Facebook’s 864 million members to join in the fun by leaving comments relevant to the book at hand. As of this writing, the page has some 241,000 likes.

So far at least – and in marked contrast to Facebook users – the reaction to this announcement within the cultural commentariat has been largely negative. Criticisms seem to come mostly in the form of: The nerve of that young upstart! Who does he think he is…Oprah? The argument here is that Mark Zuckerberg cannot pretend – nor should he pretend – to be a tastemaker like Oprah Winfrey, who re-ignited reading within her (largely) middle-aged female audience by closely aligning her book club selections with the highly personal, emotionally resonant material covered on her talk show. As Gawker’s Anna Wiener puts it: “Oprah’s best product has always been Oprah. Zuckerberg’s best product is Facebook.”

Sure and point well taken.

Read the rest of this post at The Broad Side

Image via Flickr/Ali Edwards/Creative Commons License

J.K. Rowling: Lessons on Fame & Glee’s Cory Monteith

What’s not to love about J.K. Rowling?

The best-selling, mega-successful author of the Harry Potter series has always been a winner with the public. She’s wise…she’s modest…she’s even funny. (If you’ve never heard her commencement speech at Harvard University a couple of years back, drop whatever you’re doing and listen to this…)!

But most of all, I think we all deeply respect and revere this one-time-welfare-mom who decided one day in her mid-30s while working as a divorced secretary that she would take a chance on a dream and create what would eventually become the first of a series of books that has defined a generation.

But Rowling outdid herself this past weekend when it was revealed that she had secretly written a crime novel under the male pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, a (purported) first-time novelist. The book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, had opened to high critical praise when it was published in April, but had failed to attract much in the way of commercial success, selling but 1,500 copies.

Until now. Within hours of the revelation that Rowling was the actual author (an editor at Britain’s Sunday Times was the sleuth), the book rocketed to top the Amazon best-seller charts.

Read the rest of this post at The Broad Side...

Image: 100405_EasterEggRoll_682 by Daniel Ogren via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

Game Of Thrones Author Surprisingly Normal

As a denizen of North London lo’ these past five and a half years, I’ve had my fair share of celebrity sightings. I’ve caught a glimpse of chef Boy Wonder Jamie Oliver as he entered a local bookstore. I’ve exchanged a few pleasantries with actress Helena Bonham Carter. I’ve even locked eyes with comedian Ricky Gervais at the hair dresser’s.

But by far the most exciting celebrity encounter to date was this week, when I attended a Q and A with author George R.R. Martin.

Martin — or GRRM as he’s known to fans — is the writer of the best-selling fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which the hugely popular HBO television series, Game of Thrones, is based. If you haven’t read the books — and you really should — they are famous for their unbelievably graphic and realistic depiction of medieval life, replete with internecine power struggles between warring clans, routine war crimes of the most vicious sort and, yes, quite a bit of sex. The net effect, as many have observed, is a good deal closer to history than fantasy.

I myself am not normally a fantasy reader. I came to these books via my 11 year-old son who, like many fans, literally counted down the nights until last summer’s release of the fifth volume in the series — A Dance With Dragons . (Yeah, I know. Please don’t ask. He was 4,000 pages in before I realized that the books might not be appropriate.) But at my son’s insistence, I immersed myself in Martin’s Kingdom of Westeros and its more than 1,000 characters and have never looked back. So when I saw that Martin would be giving a talk at a local University theatre, I ran to get us some tickets.

He did not disappoint.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog

 

Image: George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones by Arnold Tijerina via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Read A Game Of Thrones

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I read a great post yesterday on the Online magazine The Tribe about why adults ought to read more children’s books. The author argues that great children’s books share much in common with great adult books in terms of plot, character and pacing. The difference is that because the authors are aware of the fickle attention spans of their target audiences (e.g., kids), they try that much harder to reel you in.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this point of view. A year or so ago, Pamela Paul took to the pages of the New York Times to talk about the rising popularity of kidlit among adult readers.

I’m currently undergoing a variation on this theme myself:  at my 11 year-old’s urging, I’m reading the first book in George R.R. Martin’s wildly successful fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Yeah, I know. A lot of people don’t think of this as “kid lit,” though I think it’s reasonable to describe it as cross-over fare aimed at both teens and adults.  I also know that some parents will want to haul me into social services for letting my (then ten-year old) read this stuff, especially if they’ve seen the HBO series, Game of Thrones, based on the first novel. (I haven’t.)

But for me, this is about as close as I get to children’s fiction.

Let me say up front that I’m soooo *not* your typical fantasy fiction reader. As with my taste in films, I tend towards the irrepressibly realistic (some would say dire.)

But I’m loving A Game of Thrones and here’s why  – if you haven’t already tried it – you should also give it a go:

1. It’s realistic. If you’re like me, when you hear the term “fantasy fiction” you immediately conjure up maps of countries that don’t exist, an array of dungeons and dragons and – as a wanna-be fantasy writing friend of mine put it so aptly – “animals that talk.” All of this can be found in Martin’s kingdom of Westeros. But as anyone who has read his novels knows, what makes them stand out is how utterly realistic they are. Sure there’s a demonic human being known as “the hound,” a whole lot of sword-fighting, and some kind of evil monster-like species I haven’t quite yet sussed out that doesn’t bleed. But what really pulls the reader in is the feeling that – as in the modern world: actions have consequences. As one reviewer put it in The New York Times, “When people are stabbed, they die; when kingdoms ignore debts, the bankers show up. The characters understand their world, and we understand the characters.”

2. It’s historically grounded. A lot of that realism flows from the fact that the book at times reads more like history than it does fantasy. There are literally more than a thousand characters in the series and Martin helpfully adds an appendix to the end of the first book so that you can figure out how the different clans relate to one another. The net effect is not dissimilar to reading something like Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, in that you feel like you’re reading a fictional account of the internecine struggles among the factions in a real kingdom. Martin himself has allowed that he was frustrated with a lot of the post-Tolkien fantasy literature because it was so often grounded in a kind of “Disneyland Middle Ages” where they had the trappings of a class system but no sense of how it actually worked. He’s out to set the record straight.

3. It’s about growing up. One of the main reasons I started reading A Game of Thrones – other than that my son insisted that I try it – was an article about the fantasy genre in The Wall Street Journal by Lev Grossman. In it, Grossman systematically takes apart the standard biases that many (grown ups) bring to this sort of literature. One of the points Grossman makes is that fantasy – pace Harry Potter –  is often dismissed for being  about “the moment when a powerless, mundane person realizes that he or she is anything but.” Grossman accepts this characterization, but then goes on to point out that by the time we’re 35 – if not older – most of us are still figuring out who we are and what we want out of life. So why should a coming of age tale be any less resonant for adults than it is for kids? As someone who blogs about adulthood as a journey, I had to agree.

4.The violence is graphic; the sex is not. When I tell people that my 11 year-old has read the entire series, they often react with horror. So of course I had to go back and read the first book after he’d finished the first five volumes in order to know just how badly I’d screwed up as a parent. The fact is, there is tons of brutal violence described in minute detail. But is that really so much worse than your average video game (which I do, as a parent, limit)? And as for the sex, so far at least, it’s few and far between and quite muted. You pick your poison as a parent. (Can I patent that?) And I think that in this case, the superb story-telling and breadth of characters Martin introduces us to far outweighs the “bad” bits.

5. You will bond with your teen. My son is on the cusp of being a teenager, and all that entails. But right now, every morning my son asks me which chapter in of A Game of Thrones I’m on and we have a lengthy discussion. And for me, that would be worth it even if I hated the book.

 

Image: Fantasy Faire Unicornuus by Michelle Hyacinth via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Political Novels Worth Reading

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Over the course of last week’s blackout at RealDelia – or “blogout,”  as I ‘m now calling it (Can I coin that term?) – one of the many things that caught my eye was an article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian suggesting that we should all ditch novels in favor of non-fiction.

Her argument basically boiled down to the claim that  in dire, apocalyptic times like these, where we face the threat of global warming, financial crisis and political turmoil on a daily basis, we can’t afford to bury our heads in the airy-fairy world of fiction. Rather, we need to don our serious hats and seek to better understand the origin of earthquakes and trade deficits and the like.

I’m not sure I see that there’s necessarily a trade-off between the two. More to the point, however, I completely reject her premise that fiction is so obviously apolitical.

I don’t know what sort of fiction Ms. Williams is reading – and I hope, and rather suspect – that she wrote the article as a form of link-bait more than anything else. But I read a lot of fiction, and much of it is not only political, but highly timely and relevant.

So, just as I once recommended five political films worth viewing, I hereby submit five recent political novels worth reading:

1. Freedom. Say what you will about Jonathan Franzen’s latest epic novel about America. Some people loved it; some hated it. I was in the “loved it” camp. But however you felt, there is no denying that this is a deeply political novel about the United States at the turn of the twentieth century as it confronts the inevitable limitations and contradictions  embedded in its love-affair with personal choice. Along the way, we get a full-on immersion in party politics, environmentalism, college athletics and infidelity, all presented through the central prism of one family’s slow and painful collapse.

2. Saturday. This novel traces a day in the life of a middle-class doctor in London who goes to work on that precise Saturday in 2003 when thousands of people turned out to protest the War in Iraq. OK, sure. The War in Iraq now feels like yesterday’s news. But the anger and outrage that brought all those people out onto the street  still exists, even if the target has changed. (Today, two million people in this country participated in a 24-hour walk out to protest against pension reforms put forth by the current government.)  But author Ian McEwan is also addressing a deeper point in this brilliantly crafted novel about the political mood in Britain post 9/11: what it means to be political and whether one can truly remain detached from politics in this day and age.

3. The Tiger’s Wife. This novel has been nominated for every award in sight over the past year and justifiably so. It is a beautifully written, almost fable-like tale about family and history in twentieth century Yugoslavia. Although told with a sort of magical realist veneer, the horror and tragedy of the war that ripped apart this Balkan nation is never far below the surface. Plus, once you learn that the author, Téa Obreht, is only 25, you’ll be green with envy.

4.  The White Tiger. Another beautifully written book which has the added bonus of being laugh-out-loud funny. This book addresses politics in the developing world – specifically India. Through the rags to riches story of one boy-turned-man, the author, Aravind Adiga, exposes two sides of India (and practically every other poor country out there):  the vast, seemingly endless stretches of poverty and kinship ties and the small, almost impenetrable circles of wealth and greed. It’s a damning  – if not humorous – indictment of how it really works in most countries facing a similar socio-economic predicament. You will laugh and cry in equal measure.

5. American Wife. I just finished this (on the recommendation of a friend) and must confess that I could not put it down. As some of you may know, this book is a fictional account of Laura Bush’s life prior to and during her role as first lady. It’s not autobiographical in any way, shape or form, and is not meant to be factual, although it does include some incidents that bear an uncanny resemblance to Laura Bush’s life. I adored the author – Curtis Sittenfeld’s – first book, Prep, about what it’s like to be a Midwestern misfit at a posh, East Coast boarding school. And American Wife has that same sort of observant, interior voice that was featured in Prep. It’s a book that will definitely make you think about marriage. But it will also make you think specifically about political marriages. In an era where the First Lady is widely being touted as President Obama’s best “electoral weapon,” how much are political spouses expected to believe in their candidates?

OK, so those are just a few of the political novels I pulled off the top of my head. I didn’t even include any of the explicitly 9/11 novels like Neverland and/or The Submission because I haven’t read either of them yet.

What am I missing? What good political novels have you read lately and would you like to add to the list?

 

Image: Protest 11 by marcovdc via Flickr under a Creative Commons license