THRIVE

THRIVE
by Arianna Huffington

For those of you who know my father, you probably know this: the man can shop. If you’ve ever paid me a compliment on an item of clothing, a handbag, or perhaps a houseware, most likely my response to you was, “My Dad gave it to me.”

And so it was delightful but not surprising when a package arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago from my father. Inside: a copy of Thrive by the articulate and well-heeled Arianna Huffington. I couldn’t help giggling – Arianna is just the kind of lady my dad would champion.

Like the last book I wrote about here, Thrive wasn’t at the top of my to-read list, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that in addition to his extraordinary taste and procurement skills, my dad may have a good suggestion now and again. (Let the record state that he has been telling me to start a blog about books for years) So I gave in to the charms of Arianna.

Here are the things that she wants us all (but especially women) to do:

Sleep
Meditate
Practice Yoga
Stand Instead of Sit
Remember We’re All Going to Die
Volunteer

Arianna’s main point is that our culture defines success in terms of money and power but these values don’t lead to “a successful life by any sane definition of success.” She has a nice metaphor where she compares money and power to a two-legged stool that may work temporarily, but will eventually topple without a third leg. Her solution (or, third stool leg, if you will) is a “Third Metric” which (bear with me) has four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving.

I was surprised that a smooth-talker like Arianna couldn’t have come up with a cleaner way to organize her plan – the four pillars of a Third Metric was a little trippy for me – but nonetheless, she makes a reasonable point and has a lot of good examples and evidence to back it up. For example, I found it particularly compelling that she cites the Exxon Valdez spill, the Challenger explosion, and the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island as all being at least partially the result of sleep deprivation.

But here’s where books like Thrive bug me. One, they really don’t need to be full-length books. This one evolved from a commencement speech that Huffington gave at Smith last year and the message probably worked perfectly in that format. Her common sense propositions had me after the first example or two; I didn’t need twenty. Two, a message that resonates with the graduating class at Smith doesn’t necessarily resonate with larger swaths of the country. While I noted a couple spots where Arianna tries to offer inexpensive and/or quick ways to follow her suggestions, I couldn’t help but cringe a little at how very “Upper” the whole thing sounded. I mean, it’s pretty easy for someone who already has all the money and power she needs to tell the rest of us how much yoga we should be doing.

I’ll leave you with this. On her recent book tour, Arianna visited the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and was interviewed by Sheryl Sandberg, fellow mogul-turned-advice-author. A woman in the audience asked both women if they could honestly say that they would be in the positions they are in today if they’d been following Huffington’s suggestions for a more mindful life every step of the way. While each woman extolled the virtues of all the sleep and meditation they were currently allowing themselves, neither one of them answered the question.

AN UNTAMED STATE

A different kind of untamed state

A different kind of untamed state

An Untamed State
by Roxane Gay

First things first: yes, this is a picture of my dog Henry posed next to the book in question. He will probably be a regular on the site since I’d like to have some visual interest and a plain old book cover isn’t all that exciting. And I’m not above cheap gimmicks to drive my readership. On to the book.

I happened to be reading An Untamed State (given to me by a bookish friend – thank you, bookish friend!) in the days following Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban. While many of the circumstances in this fictional story are very different from his, this novel gave me an elevated appreciation for what Bergdahl’s re-entry might be like. Some people find it strange and suspicious that in the two weeks since his release, Sergeant Bergdahl has yet to speak with his family, but after having spent a little bit of time inside the mind of this novel’s protagonist, that decision seems like a very wise one for Bergdahl.

An Untamed State is the story of a Haitian American woman who is kidnapped while visiting her affluent parents in Haiti. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that the first half of the book details her 13-day imprisonment and the second half tracks her experience after her release.

Before my friend sent me the book, I’d read about it and was intrigued, primarily because its author, Roxane Gay, is the Essays Editor of The Rumpus. That said, I probably wouldn’t have run right out to buy this book on my own accord, as the subject matter is pretty grim and even Gay has said that there were times when she freaked herself out by the sexual violence she was creating on the page. But here’s the thing – and this is coming from an extremely squeamish person – the sexual violence and torturous conditions are rough material, but they’re handled so well that not only does Gay avoid alienating the reader, she’s managed to write a true page-turner. I found myself ripping through the book with that ever-desirable sense of wanting to know what happens next. And by creating characters and plot that are so compelling and so well paced, Gay also offers a deeper understanding of how trauma changes a person’s brain.

There are other fascinating aspects of this book I could mention, notably the conditions in Haiti that drive kidnapping to the status of an industry, but for me, ultimately this book was about trauma. And because of that, I will say this: Roxane Gay has spoken publicly about a rape she experienced as a teenager and her consequent dependency on food as a coping mechanism. Every time I hear one of these stories, it reinforces the notion that despite our national obsession with obesity, we’re still not really talking about trauma as one of the root causes. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and others are studying this correlation, it still hasn’t made the more mainstream discussion.

So back to Bowe Bergdahl for a second. To me, his situation looks like a hybrid of the Amanda Knox and Swift Boat fiascos (people misinterpreting cultural signifiers + right wing gutting) but what do I know? Not much. I’m judging what I see on the surface. Roxane Gay and her first novel are reminders that unless we really understand where someone comes from and the things they’ve experienced, judgment isn’t going to lead to solutions.

Up Next: A much more light-hearted (I promise!) post on Thrive by Arianna Huffington, modern day Greek goddess.

ART SAVES: AN INTRODUCTION

One of my writing teachers in Chicago kept a sign taped to her office wall that read, “Art Saves.” I can’t think of a more eloquent way to explain why, in a world that already feels so bogged down by content, opinions and general over-sharing, I would decide to start blogging.  You see, art — most often in the form of literature — has been saving me for a long time now.

It’s safe to say that (with the exception of my family) books have been the steadiest and most consistent presence throughout my life. They’ve offered refuge and escape and entertainment and education, but they’ve also been a way of connecting. Readers and writers come together on the page. When we read someone else’s words, we spend a little time inside their head and their heart. Beyond that, reading connects us with each other. When we read stories, we parachute into the characters’ points of view and thus, we become more open-minded and empathetic people. If you don’t believe me, check out this study published in Science Magazine about literature’s impact on empathy.

And so by writing about reading, I’ll try to forge a bond with you as I tell you a little bit about what I’m reading and I hope you’ll send your own reading lists my way. I tend to read a lot of contemporary novels, so my write-ups will focus on that particular category, but I do try to shake it up from time to time. I may even go crazy and write a little about TV or a movie once in a while. As we’ve heard many times, we’re in a “new golden age of television,” where the powers that be have finally figured out that people really like long-form storytelling. And ultimately that’s what I’m interested in – storytelling.

(Important Note: This particular post is a fairly earnest one, but I’ll do my best to inject my typical hilarious wit into regular posts.)

With that, I’ll use some television lingo and give you a teaser for my first real post coming soon: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. Coincidentally, salvation is one of the book’s themes.