Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Happiness Makeover by M.J. Ryan~★★★1/2

Author: M.J. Ryan
Title: The Happiness Makeover: How to Teach Yourself to Be Happy and Enjoy Every Day
Release Date: May 10, 2005
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "We all want things that we're sure will make us happy---money, success, independence, love. But when we finally get them, we can find to our surprise that we are the same miserable, moody, or just neutral people we always were. Why is that? Is it us? Is our ability to be happy genetically programmed in us like the color of our eyes?
Luckily not. You can teach yourself to be happy and enjoy every day, and M.J. Ryan, bestselling author of The Power of Patience and Attitudes of Gratitude, shows you how. In her international coaching practice, M.J. Ryan has shown hundreds of clients how to find and really feel the joy in their lives. She gives them tools to unearth what stands in their way and revolutionize the way they experience life. Now it's your turn for a Happiness Makeover.
Ryan's own desire to be happier first led her to study what is known about happiness from brain science, psychology, and the wisdom traditions of the world. The Happiness Makeover draws on this wide-ranging knowledge and presents a plan that will help you: -Clear away happiness hindrances like worry, fear, envy, and grudges. -Discover happiness boosters like flow, meaningful work, challenge, and gratitude. -Literally rewire your brain to experience contentment---even joy." 

Taryn's Review: I am not a person who is ashamed to say that I like to read self-help books. I especially enjoy the ones that do impact my thoughts and ideas in a great way. As I browsed the section of the library dedicated to improvement, the color and cover of this book caught my eye. One of my favorite improvement books is Matthew Kelly's The Seven Levels of Intimacy, and I was hoping this book would have the same effect on me as Kelly's book had on me.

The book claimed it can teach you to be happy and enjoy your daily life. The book was broken down into very short reflections from the author on various subjects like "Are You Focused on the Closed Door?" and "Figure Out What Really Matters to You." There are 53 blurbs on differing topics, followed by a final chapter of 22 instant happy boosters and a follow-up. While the topics were interesting, most lacked information regarding tools to overcome the hindrances that do keep one from happiness. For example, one section is titled, "Does Perfectionism Have You in Its Grip?" Ryan offered her thoughts on perfectionism and how it negated happiness, yet she offered no solutions as to how someone who suffers from perfectionism overcomes it. What tools can a person who focuses on being perfect use to accept one's flaws and embrace imperfections? Ryan did not provide resource to such questions.

Ryan's anecdotes are reflective and she incorporated the works and ideas of other authors who had written about happiness into her book; there was a bibliography at the back of the book with more than 30 books on the subject of happiness. After reading Ryan's book, I'm more inclined to turn to those authors for help with "being happy" than I am to pick up another book by Ryan if my goal is seeking ways to change my habits and thoughts.

I think a book like Ryan's is great to keep bedside to read a story each week and reflect on what Ryan presented as happiness barriers. However, Ryan's book claimed it would give a person the tools to be happier and, in my opinion, it does not support such claims. The book has some great quotes (none of which are Ryan's, but are from others like famous philosophers and social scientists) and references data others have collected on the idea of happiness, so it might be a good starting point for someone to figure out what blocks him or her from being happy, but one will need to seek other books for ways to actually improve one's level of happiness.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan~★★★★★

Author: Edmund S. Morgan
Title: American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia
Release Date: Original release date was 1975; this edition released in 2003

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "In the American Revolution, Virginians were the most eloquent spokesmen for freedom and equality. George Washington led the Americans in battle against British oppression. Thomas Jefferson led them in declaring independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration but also the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; they were elected to the presidency of the United States under that Constitution for thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of its existence. They were all slaveholders. 
In the new preface Edmund S. Morgan writes: 'Human relations among us still suffer from the former enslavement of a large portion of our predecessors. The freedom of the free, the growth of freedom experienced in the American Revolution depended more than we like to admit on the enslavement of more than 20 percent of us at that time. How republican freedom came to be supported, at least in large part, by its opposite, slavery, is the subject of this book.' 
American Slavery, American Freedom is a study of the tragic contradiction at the core of America. Morgan finds the key to this central paradox, 'the marriage of slavery and freedom,' in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the Revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country." 

Taryn's Review: This is one of those posts where I gush about a book that 95% of you will have no interest in reading, but let me say...I loved this book. Fellow American history lovers: read this book.

Morgan tackled a big subject: how did slavery arise and become accepted in a country that rallied around the idea of freedom and liberty while particular races were denied the opportunity to have freedom and liberty? It is a loaded question to ask, but Morgan answered the question with such articulation that, for me, reading the book was more of a pleasure than a chore. I loved how often he included primary source quotes into the text and, wow, did he pick some interesting ones! Early Virginians were some sharped-tongued people and their ability to use foul language in a quick-witted way was rather amusing to read. However, the penalties of breaking the law (or upsetting someone in power) could be immensely severe, too. The punishment handed down to a man who stole "two or three pints" of oatmeal was to have a needle put through his tongue and he was tied to a tree where he remained until he starved to death.

As Morgan interwove his text with colorful tales, he answered his own question. Now, you can't flip open this book and skim the words to find the answers; it is a book you have to read intently and not expect to finish up in a night. Each chapter holds part of the answer to the posed question. At times, it might feel as if Morgan has swayed from the topic, but you have to trust him. I highlighted the book as I read it and when I put the highlighted text together, Morgan's argument became very clear. Was it necessary to be as thorough and explanatory as Morgan was in his book? No, but the point of the book is to lay out the context as to why the "peculiar institution" arose in the United States...the land of the free. I could have a brief conversation with someone and summarize the main points of the book, but I can do so with such precision because of the detail and phenomenal effort that Morgan poured into his work.

This book could appeal to people with a wide range of interests. Obviously the issue of race the book discussed might be of interest to someone who's concerned with sociology; the history aspect will interest people who enjoy early American history; and people who have a fascination with economics might also be drawn to this book. It is a grand work, and it is a book I'm pleased to have on my personal bookshelf. The subject of the book is enormously complex, but Morgan's views on how slavery and racism came to be in America provided an origin to an issue that still plagues our nation today.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

White Teeth by Zadie Smith~★★★

Author: Zadie Smith
Title: White Teeth
Release Date: January 27, 2000
Publisher: This edition was published by Random House, Inc. New York; the original was published
by Hamish Hamilton, London
Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket: "On New Year's morning, 1975, Archie Jones sits in his car on a London road and waits for the exhaust fumes to fill his Cavalier Musketeer station wagon. Archie---working-class, ordinary, a failed marriage under his belt---is calling it quits, the deciding factor being the flip of a 20-pence coin. When the owner of a nearby halal butcher shop (annoyed that Archie's car is blocking his delivery area) comes out and bangs on the window, he gives Archie another chance at life and sets in motion this richly imagined, uproariously funny novel.
Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families---one headed by Archie, the other by Archie's best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for 'no problem'). Samad---devoutly Muslim, hopelessly 'foreign'---weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire's worth of cultural identity, history, and hope. 
Zadie Smith's dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant cafe, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes---faith, race, gender, history, and culture---and triumphs."

Taryn's Review: It's hard to know if one should keep reading a book that isn't grabbing his or her attention. Do you quit the book? I'm always torn on this question because I hate to quit a book for two reasons: 1) I don't want to be a quitter, and 2) I've normally already spent ample time reading the book, and by that point, why not finish the book? The problem with my reasoning is that when I'm not drawn in by a book, I'm painfully slow at reading it. I mean, a few pages a night and I'm all, "Yup, that's enough." I normally end up closing the book shortly after picking it up. However, the optimist in me trudges along nightly because you never know if the book will get better unless you try...right?

This book finally sparked my interest at page 300. Yes, page 300! This is a big book, coming in at 420ish pages. It took me three weeks to lug through 300 pages, yet it only took two nights to read through the last 120 pages. Zadie Smith is a detailed writer and while I'm not normally turned off by such details, I think the setting and time period had a lot to do with my disinterest. I'm not savvy on London culture nor the struggles of change that took over the city during the second half of the twentieth century. Those are precisely the themes that Smith drew upon in her tale, thus many themes were simply over my head. After finishing the book, I read an article about Smith's symbolism in the story. Left to my own intellect, I never would have recognized those symbols (thank heavens I didn't major in literature; I surely would have failed).

I did enjoy the way the book came together at the end of the story and how all the storylines came to a climax at a precise moment in time. That in itself has me interested in reading another novel by Zadie Smith. I thought her ending was clever and creative but I can also admit, due to my snail's pace of reading, that the emerged details were more of a surprise to me because they were mostly forgotten in my mind. I can't say I really laughed at any point in the book and many of the characters in the story were really unlikeable, but there was a peculiar draw to Smith's writing style. This book may not have been my cup of tea, but I'm not deterred from reading another Smith novel in the future.