Thursday, March 7, 2013

2013 Reading, Books 22-24

Incidentally, my random cooking posts are on a brief hiatus while I deal with writing commitments and deadlines. I expect to return to them sometime in April.

Three very distinct types of book this time out, all of which I enjoyed very much:

22) Whose Names Are Unknown, by Sanora Babb.

I heard about this book while watching Ken Burns' Dust Bowl documentary. It was originally written and accepted for publication in the 1930's, then rejected after The Grapes of Wrath came out because the acquiring editor figured there wasn't room for TWO Dust Bowl/Okie migrant stories. (Which is so laughably different from today's market, where every hit spawns a dozen imitators.)

I'm glad I read this book. It's more literary than my usual taste, but it has a kind of subtle, deceptively simple beauty, and it sort of rounded out my understanding of the Dust Bowl era, I think, in the way that good fiction can bring the past to life better than documentary alone.

23) Hot Under Pressure, by Louisa Edwards. My March entry for Wendy the Superlibrarian's TBR challenge, to be posted on in more detail on the 20th.

24) The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman.

I am by nature, culture, and upbringing a goal-oriented person who hungers for certainty in life. So I struggle when my cherished certainties crumble in the face of reality, or when I fail to meet my goals--or even when I meet them, but the happiness I expected doesn't come as a sort of trophy. Lately I've been realizing that I get so busy striving that I forget to revel in the now. I tend to almost "marry" my goals, becoming so attached to even short-term, trivial plans that having them thrown awry, even for GOOD reasons (e.g. a sudden offer of babysitting from a friend enabling Mr Fraser and I to have a date night when I'd already planned out a quiet evening writing at home) is severely discombobulating.

I've been trying to learn to strike a balance between planning, making schedules, and setting goals--because if I didn't, I'd never finish books or learn new cooking techniques or meet deadlines--and being able to let go of those plans when circumstances warrant. I'm also trying to savor the moment more--the joy of a new story idea without dwelling on whether a publisher will buy it or how well it fits my career plan, the joy of creation in the kitchen without feeling like *I* am a failure if the the dish doesn't turn out well, etc. So this book hit home, with its examination of how self-help and positive thinking techniques often fail, but Stoicism, meditation, and generally accepting mortality, failure, and uncertainty paradoxically lead to a happier and even a more productive life.

There's even a chapter about that goal marriage habit I have, though the terminology is different. One of the examples cited was the catastrophic 1996 Everest expedition famously chronicled in Into Thin Air. A persuasive theory for why so many climbers died was that they were unable to turn back from the summit when common sense and their predetermined plans dictated doing so was that their goal of summiting had become too critical a part of their identity. I think that example is going to stick in my mind next time I have trouble letting go of a goal in the face of changing circumstances. If nothing else, it gives, "Is this hill worth dying on?" a whole new meaning.

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