Wednesday, February 29, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Nine: Home Front

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

I’m ordinarily pretty OCD about reading books in the order in which I obtained them (yeah, go ahead and laugh), but this one came so highly recommended that I decided to make an exception and read it as soon as I received it.

I enjoyed this book’s ability to draw the reader in to the characters immediately. There were some I loved right off the bat and others I disliked intensely, but changed my mind about later in the book. But most of all, I appreciated the insight it gave into the life of a female soldier, the harsh realities of war in the 21st century, and the shaky ground navigated by the families left behind.

The book tackled the subject of PTSD in two juxtaposed characters: The first was a former soldier accused of murdering his wife although he had no memory of the event. The second was the main character (the wife of the lawyer defending the soldier), whose severe injuries and the loss of her best friend and fellow pilot forced her to make a difficult internal journey that led her to confront her turbulent past as well as her uncertain future.

My only disappointment with this book was the neat little package the author presented us at the end. War is messy, and its aftermath is often messier. Yet it seemed that after a good cry and some great sex, the protagonist was able to toss the pills and booze, reconnect with her alienated children, proudly raise herself up on her prosthetic leg and shout “Hallelujah!” and go out and start saving the world, one injured soldier at a time. Somehow it all seemed too trite. Perhaps “happily ever after” works well in fairy tales, but in real life it usually takes a lot more time and effort.

Friday, February 24, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Eight: Seeking Peace

Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher

I don’t remember when I’ve related more to a book from its opening pages, but this was one of those times. There were points when the author “told my story” to such an extent that I found myself shouting “YES!” out loud as I read. (Sorry, Oreo.) 

Mary Pipher’s struggles to meditate (“Until … my fifties, I had never, not even for ten seconds, done nothing”), her need to be outdoors (“It is as if we were solar-powered) and especially her crisis of spirit around her own success (“Convincing people that great success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be is a hard sell”) resonated strongly.

She reminded me that “many people politely fall apart at some point in their lives” but that “how they regroup and move on determines what their future will be.” This was the story of how she did just that. 

So many memoirs slide down the slippery slope of sappiness, but this one did not. The author at all times remained refreshingly human, able to laugh at herself while still expressing the seriousness of her struggle with depression and the joy of her spiritual rebirth … all in a way that did not induce eye-rolling from the reader. 

Part of the charm of this book for me may have been that it was written when the author was around my current age. Younger people may not get the same impact, and probably if I had read this in my thirties or even my forties, I would have smiled and said “that’s nice” and forgotten about it.

But I will not soon forget this book with its timeless message of gratitude, fortitude and faith. Most importantly, it was another reminder that my struggles are not unique to me; they are part of the human experience, and no matter how lonely I may feel, I am never really alone.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

February REVolution: Get Spirited!

Somewhere I heard that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who have already been there. I can certainly relate to that! 

I have also read that one’s search for spiritual fulfillment is very different in the second half of life than it was in the first. And I can relate to that too. Quite frankly, there was only one kind of spirit I was interested in during the first half of life, and it wasn’t the kind you find in church.

So what is this longing for a relationship with a Higher Power? Why do humans feel the need to connect with something more, with a Great Spirit, God, Mother Nature or any number of names we have given to that entity that is bigger than all of us? 

While I don’t expect to find the answer by February 29 (thank goodness I have an extra day this year!), I did turn my focus to faith this month. 

The first weekend in February, I attended a program by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation, rooted in Catholic identity, but encouraging ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. The topic for his program was “FALLING UPWARD: A SPIRITUALITY FOR THE TWO HALVES OF LIFE.” To greatly simplify his message, he states that in the first half of life, we discover our spiritual “container” and in the second half we fill it. Many people never leave the first half of life, choosing to stay bogged down in rules-based religiosity instead of delving deeper into a more spiritual journey. It was interesting to see where I still found myself mired in “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” and where I most needed to grow.

Father Rohr also spoke of the Enneagram, which is defined as “a nine-sided figure used in a particular system of analysis to represent the spectrum of possible personality types.” The week following the seminar, a friend sent me a link to an online quiz that helped me determine my type. To no one’s surprise, I am a Type 1: The Reformer – perfectionist, responsible and fixated on improvement ( After discovering my type, I was given the following next steps: “Your spiritual journey is to reclaim a sense of serenity. Even flaws may have a purpose. Recognize that true perfection and spiritual growth will come to you when you realize that all things are inherently perfect just as they are.” Well, that sure gave me plenty to chew on.

Then this week I began reading a book called Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher (more about this in my next book blog post). I was immediately struck by what she said about success and the guilt she felt about not being grateful for hers. Here I thought I was the only one who felt that way! The rest of the book is about her quest for a quieter, more peaceful life – “slowing down, crafting a new identity, and discovering inner tranquility.” Hm, that sure sounds familiar! And the author sounds eerily like a Type 1 on the Enneagram spectrum! Perhaps the rest of this book will teach me some pointers on how to find that elusive sense of serenity … or is that just me being too “first half of life” again?

Stay tuned for more about the journey on Leap Day!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Seven: Wild Child

Wild Child by T.C. Boyle

Short stories are usually not my favorite genre, but I was attracted to the title story of this book, having read the nonfiction tale of Victor, the feral boy captured running naked in the forests of France in 1797. And although this story was well written and interesting, I found some of the others even more compelling.

Especially gripping were “La Conchita,” which takes place during a California mudslide; “Sin Dolor” about a boy who could feel no pain; and “The Lie” – a cautionary tale of how telling little white lies can spin out of control. One story, “Three Quarters of the Way to Hell,” was set in a recording studio during the time my dad was in the music industry, and it so completely captured the essence of the environment that I felt like I was reliving the stories he used to tell. Great stuff!

If you like short stories – and even if you think you don’t – give T.C. Boyle a read. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Book Six: Half a Life

Half a Life by Darin Strauss

Have you ever had an experience that literally cuts your life in two? For me it was my mother’s death. After October 4, 1978, my life would forever be defined as those years “before my mother died” and those years after.

For the author of Half of Life, the moment that tore the curtain was a car accident in which he struck and killed a bicyclist. Making an already awful situation worse was the fact that he was a teenager and she was in his high school class. 

What follows is a memoir of his attempts to deny, repress, overcome and finally accept what had happened and how it shaped everything that came afterward. To do this, he had to seek the forgiveness not only of the people who were part of his past but also the people he met later in life. The ones who didn’t know. But who must find out from him in order to develop a true relationship. Ultimately, the one he had to seek forgiveness from most was himself. 

As with most great transformations in life, there was no “burning bush” – no lightning strike after which he was healed. His change was gradual; his acceptance happened only after much time and angst. The suddenness of unimaginable hurt was followed by the agonizing healing of time. That is the human experience, at least as I have seen it played out so many times in my life and in the lives of my friends. That is what makes this book especially appealing. It is everyone’s story.