ME BEFORE YOU

Me B4 U

Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes

When I ask my friends and family what they’re reading, the answers tend to vary as much as they do. But in the past year, one book kept coming up in conversations: Me Before You, which, it turns out, owes much of its success to just this sort of word-of-mouth promotion.

A couple of you warned me that while you liked the book overall, the writing isn’t exactly notable. And I agree that the narration is clunky at times, but I’ll tell you what my biggest complaint about this book is: its book flap. It’s like one of those movie trailers that leave you feeling like you’ve already seen the entire film. But you go to see the movie anyway and then you end up blaming the writer for making something so predictable. In this case, the book flap description takes us right up to the penultimate scene in the story, at which point we’ve already guessed what the final scene will be and while it’s a lovely one, I can only imagine how much lovelier it would have been had I not seen it coming a mile away.

For those of you who have not yet read this book or the flap inside its cover, I’ll try to give you an inkling of the plot without spoiling the whole thing. Me Before You is a love story between a sheltered young woman in a small English town and a slightly older quadriplegic man. The British class system is examined, as is the meaning of life; a great setup and, despite my minor frustrations along the way, I was compelled. I worried about the characters while making dinner and realized that I’d only pick up the book when I knew I’d have a good chunk of time to read because it would be too hard to put it down again.

The book’s working-class heroine narrates most of the story and though I didn’t love that aspect of the writing, after a while, I kept hearing the voice of Downton Abbey’s assistant cook, Daisy, in this narration. You can blame this on the show’s recent season premiere and my lack of imagination, but once Daisy had entered my subconscious, it occurred to me that I was enjoying the book in the same way I enjoy Downton. While both have some heavy-handed and repetitive themes, in each case the characters keep me coming back for more. Beyond the pretty clothes they wear against pretty backdrops (also big draws), Downton’s characters often get in some good lines. And a witty retort does it for me every time.

Me Before You has its own fair share of witty retorts and enough snarky dialogue to endear me to the characters delivering it. With a plot that could easily veer into the melodramatic, the wry humor of the story’s characters gives it the balance required to be moving without becoming overly sentimental. And in its sometimes clunky but nonetheless gripping way, it manages to make you think about what it means to live and to value each day. Thanks to everyone who recommended it to me.

THE POWER OF HABIT

habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg

After being completely devastated by We Are Not Ourselves, I needed a break from drama for a while, so I picked up Supportive Husband’s copy of The Power of Habit. Even though it’s something he’s been reading for work (and much of it focuses on how business uses information about human habits), I figured this book would be self-helpy enough to feed all those aspirational cravings that tend to pop up around the first of the year. (Note: the following turned out to be more of a summary than anything else, but you may still find it interesting)

According to Charles Duhigg, our brains create habits (and many of them!) in the form of a habit loop that satisfies a particular need. A good example is snacking. Perhaps you get peckish around 3pm everyday. With little conscious thought, you may get up from your desk around this time each afternoon and wander down to the cafeteria for an afternoon nosh. If you want to stop this habit loop, Duhigg says that first you have to figure out if it is really hunger cueing you to snack or if it’s something else. Often people discover it’s actually boredom, in which case, wandering over to a co-worker’s desk for a quick 10-minute chat may carry the same reward as that doughnut (I know, hard to believe).

And so we arrive at the discussion of willpower, a trait most of us probably consider a skill. Some people have a lot of willpower, others just don’t – right? Well, it turns out that willpower is actually more like a muscle, so when we exercise it, it grows stronger.

Duhigg points to a research study that put two dozen self-professed couch potatoes on an exercise program that increased in intensity each week. As the program wore on, the researchers found that the participants were pushing themselves harder and harder at the gym, using increased willpower each time they worked out. But what’s particularly interesting is how this increased level of willpower impacted other parts of their lives: their cigarette, alcohol, caffeine and junk food consumption all went down, they did more homework and less TV watching. Great outcomes, though as you can imagine, the researchers wanted to make sure that the effects they were seeing correlated with overall willpower, not just physical activity.

So they enrolled a different group of people in a second study involving money management. They gave participants savings goals and instructed them to avoid luxury spending, including dining out and entertainment. They also had to keep a log of their expenses. This is pretty fascinating: as the participants became more disciplined about enacting these habits, they also experienced the same benefits as the exercise group, which included healthier living and better work habits. “As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives … that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked.”

That said, like our body’s muscles, our willpower muscle gets fatigued and needs recovery time. If we have a particularly challenging day at work, it’s going to be harder to go on that run when we get home. On a broader scale is the issue of autonomy, which is crucial for willpower. For when people don’t feel they have control over their lives, their willpower isn’t as strong, no matter what they are trying to do.

Now that my own willpower has been renewed (kind of, this post wasn’t very creative), I’ll be back with a fiction selection soon, courtesy of this blog’s original patron, my dad.

 

STATE OF WONDER

IMG_0953State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett

I like Ann Patchett more with every passing interview and quote I read of hers. Check out the video post directly before this one and it won’t take long to see why I’m a big fan. (Lying on the sofa reading books? Avocado sandwiches? Hello? Can we say separated at birth?)

In the attached video, Patchett describes herself as “profoundly uninteresting,” someone who doesn’t “do” anything. And yet State of Wonder is most easily categorized as an adventure story. The novel’s protagonist, a 40-something obstetrician-turned-pharmacologist is tasked with venturing into the Amazon jungle to find a former mentor who is developing a secret new drug for their shared employer. It would be difficult to describe the very interesting and imaginative story that ensues without taking away from the fun of reading this book, which unravels as smoothly and deliberately as the coils of an anaconda. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the jungle reference) So while I can’t get into the specifics, I can promise you well-written mystery, danger and a little touch of fantasy.

But what I appreciated most about State of Wonder was that it served as my companion during my own recent adventure, in which I was forced to get up off the couch and did not have access to a single avocado, if you can imagine such a thing. No, I wasn’t traveling down the Amazon in a canoe, but as I sat in the tropics-like heat of a Yale dorm room last Thursday night sweating between two wool blankets (the only bedding available to separate me from my plastic mattress) while trucks, motorcycles and infrequent blasts of car music tumbled by outside my window, I tried to read just a few pages in a fruitless effort to fall asleep. While I attempted to strategically angle the microscopic “face fan” I’d procured earlier that day at CVS (thanks anonymous CVS shopping partner, you know who you are), it struck me that I too was taking a journey.

As a volunteer writing coach for College Summit, my journey would involve several 16-hour days working with low-income students in an intensive program that prepares them for college, all while being reintroduced to the distinct experiences of sleeping and eating in a college dorm. By the time I arrived at Yale, I’d been traveling for two weeks and I felt utterly unprepared on just about every level, be it my limited supply of remaining clean clothes, my lack of experience with this demographic of students, the unfamiliar structure I’d need to follow, not to mention the challenges an introverted person faces when told that they are expected to be “on” every waking hour of their day. It was daunting. And did I mention the unfortunate haircut I was sporting?

I’ll cut to the chase. College Summit was one of the best things I’ve ever done. There are many reasons why the experience was so positive, but I can’t underestimate the importance of having allowed myself to be uncomfortable. It’s so easy to keep our lives under tight control and feel like the world “turns on” when we charge up our computers (and thank you, by the way, for staring at yours right now as you read this). But we can’t have adventures in the familiarity of our homes. We must venture out, both physically and mentally, if we’re to grow and achieve that state of wonder.