LSS: Summer reading recommendations

Memorial Day weekend marks the official opening of summer reading. Whether you’re a voracious reader and can’t find enough to fill your appetite or you approach it much like the vegetables of childhood — something you have to do begrudgingly, I’ve tried to read a real variety to vouch for good stuff in different genres. I’ve read a number of other so-so books lately (The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout), but those on the list below rise to the top. Here are some recommendations, both new and old.

Fiction:

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan — Such a fun read. About more than a funky bookstore. Much food for thought about technology, the love of reading and the risk of technology to isolate rather than bring people together, but basically it’s just a beautifully written and lovely story. Techy 20-somethings rejoice. This is your book.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Sometimes this book’s writing took my breath away. The story isn’t exactly uplifting, but it is a lovely tale of love, loss and New York City.

Fall of Giants and Winter of the World by Ken Follett. If you like history, historical fiction or great storytelling, you’re going to be absorbed by Follett’s Century trilogy. They’re big, but you have the luxury of staying with the books long enough to really feel like you’re a part of the story. I’ve recommended Fall of Giants before, but I am happy to do so again. The books tell the stories behind World War I and II. Both gave me an understanding of the war’s absurdities. Winter of the World also offered insight into life inside Germany during World War II. Yes, the stories are fiction, but Follett’s research is remarkable. I am not a war buff, but I loved reading these books.

Personal favorites I’ve recommended before: The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson (three very different book types — all beautiful in their own way)

Young adult:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. One of the most heartbreakingly beautiful books I’ve read in a long while. It leaves an impression and is sure to be a blockbuster movie. Read now and get ahead of the trend.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai. A lovely book, set between Vietnam and the Deep South. It is the story of one child’s transition and grief in the beginnings of war in Vietnam and her subsequent a trip across the world to rebuild a new life with her family and eventual new friends. A beautiful story, written in simple, poetic language. An easy read for children 8 and up.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine by Nancy Turner. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years. Don’t let the dialect in the beginning discourage you. The difficult vernacular goes away, and the reading experience becomes smoother. Great book for teenage girls.

Non-fiction:

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Even though we may not love the book or agree with the details of her ideas, the book has prompted a lot of great conversation about women rising in the ranks of the business world.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I’m the only person I know who didn’t love this book, but I still recommend it. Based on Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, and his incredible story of running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and fighting in World War II. He has led a life stranger than fiction and survived more near death experiences than any cat around. Great book for adolescent boys and their fathers.

The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. I love Seth Godin, his thought processes and his books. Overall, he’s got a huge message on business and living. This book is about not holding back and being the most you can be. In other words, follow Icarus’ lead and dare to fly closer to the sun. Your wings won’t melt. If you’re in the working world or aspire to be, you should read this one.

And if you’d like a taste of poetry, check out Darrell Bourque’s new collection of Acadian migration inspired work, Megan’s Guitar.

Happy reading!

One in a (half) million.

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This marks the 581st Sunday morning this column has run in this newspaper. I’m approaching 500,000 words. Most weeks, the topics just appear to me. I can’t explain the process completely, but I can say that I don’t have to work hard for them. In a way, I’m constantly looking for my theme of the week. I suppose I work harder than most to be consistently open to people, their stories and their ideas.

Of course, I’m not always successful. Occasionally, the deadline looms, and I have to seek external inspiration.

This week was one of those weeks.

As I sat down to write my column, I decided to ask my 11-year-old daughter, “If you could write a newspaper column about anything, what would you write about?”

Without missing a beat, she said, “L-O-V-E.”

Then she paused and said, “No, that’s not right, Mom. When it comes right down to it, you should write about one word and one word only.”

“What’s that word?” I asked.

She turned around and looked right in my eyes and said, “Hope — that what it’s all about.”

And with that she walked out of the room. Once she went through the door, she turned back around and said, “On this one, Mom, I am wise beyond my years.”

All I could do was say, “Indeed, you are, my dear.”

Before I go any further, I’ll say that not all interactions in my home are like that.

The truth is with both daughters in the throes of adolescence, we have what seems like more than our share of bickering on a daily basis. But then, when those rare moments of an 11-year-old girl looking me in the eyes and telling me that there’s really only one thing in this world to write about — and that thing is hope. Well then, there’s really no choice in that matter. A mama’s got to write about hope.

After thinking for a while about hope, I decided that it’s one of those things that rests just beneath the surface of almost everything I do.

Maybe hope grows in the soil of forgiveness?

Without forgiveness, you can’t hope for better friends and love than you’ve had before. You can’t hope for a better you until you’ve absolved the old you. And, you can’t hope yourself past tragedy until you forgive God for what has happened.

Maybe hope grows in the soil of curiosity?

For me, there’s a direct link between curiosity and hope. Curiosity leads to opportunity. Seeking opportunity leads to being proactive or taking risks. And, maybe it’s because I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal, but taking risks to me is all about hope.

I decided to ask a few others how they define hope.

Stacey Scarce, took a pragmatic approach. She said, “Hope is knowing that so many things are outside of your control yet still wanting the best of possible outcomes or some acceptable variation.”

Sharon Falgout said, “Hope is in the fact that, if we are blessed, we are given another day to give it another try.”

Mike Bourque said, “Hope is the small light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gretchen Donham said, “Hope is the firm belief that there is a reason to go on.”

Ted Power said, “Hope is the sun setting. Dawn breaking. Opening day of baseball. The last day of school. The National Anthem. Happy birthday to you.”

Another friend sent me a quote from Vaclav Havel, one of my all-time favorite world leaders. Havel said, “Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out…. Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”

In the grand scheme of things, my daughter is right. Out of a half a million words, maybe hope is the most important one.

Happy Mother’s Day to one and all

In honor of Mother’s Day, I asked readers to tell me something specific that their mothers did right. Responses came in droves, most offering some loving motherly nugget.

However, I also heard from people who didn’t win the mother lottery. For them, this day is not full of warm fuzzies. There aren’t many Mother’s Day cards along the lines of, “I guess you did the best you could. I’m still working to forgive you.”

In the spirit of honoring the spectrum of motherhood, I’ve included a little of everything below:

– When I applied to college, I applied to one school, the closest one to our home. When I went to orientation with my mother, a counselor advised my mom that I would not do well if I was spending two hours a day commuting. The counselor offered me a spot with on-campus housing. My mother jumped at this opportunity for me. She knew my father would be extremely angry, which he was. He eventually forgave her. After I graduated from college and then Stanford Medical School, my father acknowledged that my mother had made the best decision for me.

– My mom always lets me pick the music and we always listen to it turned all the way up and dance every time we ride anywhere (without Dad).

– My parents died within weeks of each other, much too soon. Mom had gastric cancer. She never complained, even though it was brutal. Shortly before she died, she was sitting with me waiting on CT scan results and crying quietly. I hugged her and asked if she was hurting. She shook her head and said, “No, I miss Quincy.” In that moment, I realized just how deeply she loved Dad — something I’ll always treasure.

– My parents divorced when I was 9. My sisters were 8 and 3. My mom had married very young and never gone to college. She went back to school with three kids and became a nurse. I remember getting up for a drink of water at night and mom was outside with a study group, under a security light so they didn’t wake us up. She taught me that education is that important and once you are a mom, your kids come first.

On the flip side of motherhood:

– The thing my mother did for me was to leave my siblings and me with grandparents when we were very young. I had to fend for myself and learn right from wrong all on my own. Her leaving me turned me into a strong, responsible, hard working, strong-willed, loving, and caring mother to my three children and husband.

– My mother is narcissistic. She who probably loves us — her children — but instead often shows us meanness and selfishness. I don’t mean to be a downer about it, but as everyone gushes on this day, some of us don’t.

I found solace in a sermon delivered by a minister who spoke of these kinds of mothers in relation to the commandment to honor your mother and father. He asked if that commandment held if they weren’t good, kind parents? He suggested that we’re not commanded to love them, agree with them, aspire to be like them — but simply to honor them as a parent, who for better or worse got us here. This thought was extremely helpful to me and brought me peace in that regard.

When I was 18 or 19 and in college at LSU, my mom came to pick me up. By the time we reached Butte la Rose, she was furious with me because I wasn’t a sorority girl like she had been. She pulled off the interstate and kicked me out of the car and left me alone in the swamp (before cell phones). She drove off. I was terrified. I walked to the other side of the interstate where there was a small building, but it was empty. (This was before there was the big rest area facility there.)

I just sat on the stoop and waited, not knowing what to do. Eventually, she came back for me and later acted as though everything was just dandy. We have never spoken of it, but I relive it every time I drive past Butte la Rose, which is fairly often.

I doubt this is the kind of story you want for Mothers Day, but I know I’m not the only one who didn’t have the wonderful kind of mother. I tried to be a better mother and have two loving daughters to spend my day with — as well as a loving mother-in-law who loves me in a way my mother couldn’t.

Happy Mothers’ Day to you. May you find joy and peace in the day.

LSS: Lessons in a letter to be delivered by Dr. Who

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Lately I’ve spent time with friends I love who have young children. That time has made me consider things I’ve learned in the process of parenting — things I wish I had known back when my children were younger. I decided to write myself a letter — the kind of letter that Marty McFly and Doc Brown or Doctor Who could deliver:

Dear Jan in 1997,

Chill out. Just enjoy it all as much as possible. I believe in you and know you’ll do your best. But here are a few extra tidbits to remember along the way:

Help your children. Model the behaviors you want them to have. Always be aware that your actions have repercussions. Do the right thing — and remember that sometimes the right thing to do is nothing (which also happens to be the hardest thing to do as a parent).

All that said, know now that as hard as you try, things will never be perfect for your little ones. You can do all the “right things,” but somewhere along the way, this tiny, perfect beautiful baby is going to run into situations that you can’t fix. No amount of preparing on your part could prepare that little doll you hold in your arms to flourish in every situation that’s going to come her way.

Even so, she’ll be OK.

In some ways you’ll parent as a reaction to your parents — that’s how these things go. Just know that you don’t need to change it all. Your parents did many things well. With today’s tendencies to encourage children to be engaged and play with all the right toys, watch all the right shows, be in the best schools, think back to when you were young and how some days your parents told you not to come inside until dark. Granted, that’s probably not a good move with a toddler, but try hard not to over-parent.

Know that your children need time and opportunity to be unsupervised. They need to be in places where they can take risks. A skinned knee is not the end of the world. A bump on the head is sometimes necessary. Trying to protect this child into perfection will not happen. Basically, I’m telling you to get over yourself. Your kid may end up doing great things — and you will play a role in your child’s development, but so will other people.

This one is going to shock you. Secondly, brace yourself, but know that there will come a time when your child isn’t telling you the truth. Throw out the whole sack of pohooey about always believing your child and never questioning them with last week’s meatloaf. No matter that you’ve always told them the truth. Still, there will come a time — and hopefully there won’t be too many times — but that sweet thing will inadvertently or deliberately deceive you. You are not a bad parent when you ask a few extra questions.

Next, and this is an important one that a lot of people seem to have let go in recent years, but you need to find effective ways to punish your child when she behaves in a way that is not appropriate. This will sound really harsh, but I have come to believe that — and this observation isn’t totally based on personal parenting experience, it comes in large part from teaching in a middle school, but here goes — children need a certain level of awareness and even a mild fear of consequences. They need to know that there will be consequences if they do the thing they are not supposed to do. Disastrous things happen when children don’t have a basic respect for authority, but I’m not suggesting beating their beautiful little spirits down.

Also, don’t feel like you’ve got to pack up the car and head out to every event that your child might enjoy. There’s serious beauty in just staying home and doing very little — together.

Lastly, make sure your children have chores that they alone own. Make these chores vital to the running of the household.

Oh, and when the time comes, buy Apple, Google and Amazon.

Love,
Jan