I read because I must. It's like breathing to me. And I love talking about books. But I'm also an Arsenal fan, a wine drinker, a music lover and weirdly obsessed with pop culture. I mostly blog about books, but sometimes about things I'm thinking or doing. When I'm not on the blog, I'm scoping deals for a professional services company, hanging out with friends, or seeing some live theater.

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Book 9: Finding Your Own North Star

Posted on 13 Feb 2010 In: Reading

A former colleague recommended Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star to me several years ago. I’ve read it a few times now. Sometimes, I think we hear messages, get hints about our path, and we ignore them. Then, when the stars align, when the universe is ready, when we’re ready, we finally listen to the message. This time, I think I was ready to listen to the message of this book, to trust what Beck calls “The Essential Self.”

Beck theorizes that all of us have an essential self and a social self. It is the social self that keeps us out of jail, in the Junior League, and coloring in the lines. The Essential self is who we are at our core, who we are meant to be. And the idea is that the two play nicely together and share their toys. In reality, many of us allow our social self to take over. Yes, it keeps us out of jail. But it also keeps us in the Junior League when we’d sooner walk barefoot over hot coals than attend one more committee meeting, because it is what we’re expected to do. Allowing the social self too much control makes sure we only color in the lines and are appalled at even suggesting that we freehand something.
Beck’s premise is that we have our own internal compass, our own north star, comprised in part of our essential self. If we listen to this essential self and follow this internal compass we are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Yes, I’m boiling that down a bit. And I don’t mean to sound flip about it, or go all “The Secret” and talk about laws of attraction and that stuff. I don’t think Beck intends that either. I believe that what she intends is that if we listen to our true wants and needs, and do what we can to meet those, then we are holistically happier, healthier, and wealthier people.
I’ve been going through quite the contemplative stage for the last year or so. What do I want to be when I grow up, and what do I want to leave as a legacy? When I posted on Harry, A History, I mentioned the emotions that it brought up in me. The giddy, childlike excitement I felt at the Harry Potter series. How HAPPY it made me. Beck thinks that if we are in touch with our essential selves, then we know our path because it evokes those same giddy, happy, passionate feelings in us.
I lost that a long time ago. I haven’t truly felt things in a long time. I’ve merely existed, doing what is expected of me. I don’t want that to be all there is, so I took Leonard Cohen’s advice. I couldn’t feel, so I’m learning to touch. After this third? fourth? reading of North Star, I’m finally starting to pay attention to my essential self.
Martha Beck is right. When you ignore your essential self, your body reacts differently than when you let this essential part of you guide your actions. I made the conscious decision earlier this week to go with this “gut feeling.” I was faced with a question where I knew what the socially preferred answer would be “yes, I’ll give up this free time on a holiday to do something that really can wait.” As soon as I heard the question, my body tensed . My stomach clenched. I didn’t want to give up time on a holiday for a non-essential meeting. I swallowed hard and said what my essential self was screaming at me to say. “No.” And immediately, the tension left me. I relaxed. I was proud of myself.
This book is peppered with exercises and activities to help discover one’s true path. I’m working through those as I have time. I’m beginning to experience what Beck means when she talks about how much better it feels to be authentic. I figure better late than never, but maybe, just maybe, I’m on the path to creating my own happiness.

Book 8: Harry, A History

Posted on 10 Feb 2010 In: Reading

Harry, A History,by Melissa Anelli


Only minutes after I began listening to Harry, A History, I had to turn it off. As I recently explained on my Facebook page, even I am sometimes surprised at my level of dorkiness, and this was one of those moments. Should any of my friends read this post, I’m ready for whatever geek jokes you throw at me. After this book, I know I’m in good company.

When I started listening to the book, I was driving through Atlanta on I-20 on a Friday afternoon. In other words, not the time to be so distracted by a book, so overwhelmed with the emotions it was bringing back to me, that I couldn’t pay attention to the road. I simply had to turn it off for something that required less involvement from me. As soon as I could, though, I tuned back into the audiobook and ordered a hard copy of it for future reference.

Harry, A History, opens with the excitement of the impending announcement of the publication date of the final Harry Potter novel, and all that the announcement meant. I remember hearing the date, and getting my notification from Amazon.com that I could pre-order the book. On the release date, I remember giddily greeting the UPS delivery man halfway down the driveway, just to get my hands on the book that much sooner. I remember I had houseguests the weekend Deathly Hallows came out. As soon as they left on Sunday, I barricaded myself in the house, with no internet, television, or radio distractions, and read. I didn’t want any spoilers, and I read the whole book. I had to finish it in one fell swoop because work beckoned on Monday and I just couldn’t take the chance of learning who lived, who died, and how things resolved from any source other than JK Rowling herself. In a much more eloquent manner, Melissa Anelli recounts her similar emotions at learning the date. As webmistress of the Leaky Cauldron, one of the top rated Harry Potter fansites on the web, Anelli has been privy to the inner workings of the amazing Harry Potter fandom. She shares her experiences, and what the books and fans and JK Rowling herself have meant to Melissa over the years.

This book does precisely what it should for any reader who cares deeply about its subject matter. I’m a self-professed Harry Potter fan (Potterfile? Potterhead?). I’m a lot like Hermione in a lot of ways, but hopefully more like her in Books 4-7 than 1-3. Bossy, nagging little swot, wasn’t she, in those early books? But I digress. Anelli brought back to my mind the excitement I felt when I first discovered the Harry Potter books. She began reading the books when she was in school at Georgetown University. She became friends with one of the “cool kids” who also loved the books. She began volunteering with the Leaky Cauldron fan site (http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/) and it wasn’t long before her “hobby” began to overtake “real” Life.

I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that at more than one part of this book, I was nearly in tears. Not because anything was that sad, but because it was so close to home, and so fulfilling. Melissa Anelli is passionate about Harry Potter, and she was able to turn this passion into something meaningful in her life. At the same time, she discovered and reported on how a series of BOOKS brought so many people from so many different experiences together.

And to me, that is the best thing about the Harry Potter books. In this era of instant gratification, of the internet and PS3’s and Wii’s and Twitter and Facebook, etc., etc., etc., it is books that brought together millions of people over ten years. Books! Isn’t that amazing? Books!

But back to what I loved about Melissa’s account of the Harry Potter phenomenon. I didn’t know that the HP fandom is as extensive as it is. I love that Anelli talks about some of the lesser-known sites that fought for the right to discuss the books they loved, and worked with Rowling and Warner Brothers to find a happy medium. I love that Wizard Rock is a legitimate rock genre, which I now know. Special thanks to Draco and the Malfoys, Harry and The Potters, and The Whomping Willows for now having their own playlist on my iPod. Extra Special thanks to Melissa Anelli for letting me know they exist.

I think, mostly, what I loved about the book is that Melissa Anelli got to live her bliss. How many of us can say that? She became passionate about a series of books, and found a cyber community that felt the same. She helped nurture and grow that community. Because she protected the integrity of the series, she earned the respect of her fellow fans, and equally as important, JK Rowling herself. Anelli found a way to turn her passion for writing, and her passion for this magical world of Harry Potter into a book. A thoroughly engaging and enjoyable book for any HP Fan. And finding a way to share your bliss with others, well, isn’t that something all of us want in the end?

Book 7: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Posted on 31 Jan 2010 In: Reading

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. Released in the States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I’m not including a link here- if you can’t find or haven’t heard of Harry Potter, well, there’s really no hope now, is there?
I remember when I first entered the world of Harry Potter. It was 1998. I was in Atlanta, and was running errands with my cousin J——-. She had a quick stop to make in one shop, and said, “Here, read this while I run inside and pick up these photo proofs. Mike sent them over from England, and apparently these books are insanely popular there.”
And so, in the fifteen minutes or so that J was inside, I read the first several pages of Harry. And even though I was thirteen years older than Harry, I was hooked. Something about the way JK Rowling wrote about Harry, and Muggles, and magic just enthralled me from the beginning.
Rowling created an enchanting magical world. Whether intentional or not, Rowling wrote on two levels. Her clever use of names likely wouldn’t be caught by 9-12 year olds, but older readers would certainly notice them. In this first book, the relationships were so important. The Magic was a subtext. It wasn’t until the later books that I found myself wishing for the magical abilities myself- how cool would it be to be magical.
I recognized pieces of myself in Hermione. I already adored Ron. As old as I was, Rowling captivated me, and I worked with J to have Mike send me the first three books from the UK. I read them all in quick succession. It started me on a journey into a world that still fascinates me today. Early in the third book, I realized how Rowling had begun laying a foundation in Book 1 that was going to be important throughout the series. That is why I’ve read the first six books numerous times. And it is why I am re-reading the series again now, before the first of the last two films hits theaters this November.
The piece of this book that I carry with me is Dumbledore’s words to Harry when Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised. He said, “It does not do to dwell in dreams and forget to live. (UK Children’s edition, p 157).”
I could talk about Potter all day. I won’t. But I will be forever grateful to JK Rowling for opening my eyes to an entirely new genre of fiction. For creating endearing characters and a world that has become a part of our culture (I cannot believe how many “texts from last night” and other contemporary works reference the HP series). I’m grateful to Rowling for opening up to a whole new generation the joy of reading.
I won’t read Chamber of Secrets immediately, on to something else for the next book. But I will come back to the Magical world before this journey is over.

Book 6: Warrior Queen

Posted on 31 Jan 2010 In: Reading

The story of Queen Bouidca, Warrior Queen by Alan Gold

Appropriately listening to Big Wolf Pappa’s “Warrior Queen” while writing this post.
Warrior Queen is a fictionalized retelling of the story of Britain’s Celtic Queen, Boudica. Full disclaimer time. My knowledge of the expansion of the Roman Empire into Africa, the Middle East, and Europe is hazy at best. Of course I’ve heard the history of some of the corrupt rulers, including Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. But I have to confess it will take more research than I have done to this point to say with certainty which parts of this story are historically correct, and where things have been fictionalized or even best-guessed. I’m summarizing here what I think of the book. It is fiction, though, so I fully recognize that things may be referred to here as fact that truly are not. Now, moving on….
Warrior Queen tells the story of one Iceni queen, Boudica, who led Briton in an uprising against the Roman Empire in 60 A.D. The Empire levied heavy taxes on even those Britons who were considered “friends of Rome.” Boudica and her husband were the rulers of the Iceni tribe. Boudica’s husband, knowing his death was near, created a will, without Boudica’s knowledge, that gave half the Iceni wealth to Emporer Nero and made his two daughters Queens with Nero. When Boudica tried to get the will enforced, she was publicly whipped and her daughters raped by the Romans. Intent on revenge, Boudica became the Warrior Queen, aligning tribes with centuries-long history of warring with each other, to take on the Roman empire. I’ll stop there- the story is really quite interesting, certainly a David and Goliath type of tale. But I don’t want to share the ending here.
Aside from telling an interesting and compelling story, one thing the book does well is switch narration between Boudica and other Britons and the Romans. Balancing multiple viewpoints in a story can be challenging. Since there is no omniscient character, an author must take care to ensure that each character know and reveal only what is in their power to know and reveal. Too many vacillating viewpoints can confuse the reader. Alan Gold manages his characters and narration carefully, to avoid just such confusion.
This story did not move with the pace that I expected it to, although by the end I was both anxious to turn the page, and dreading the same. Anxious, because the tension and excitement were building, and dread because I did not know quite how this story was going to end, and wasn’t sure I was going to be happy with the ending. I think that made up for the pacing.
I enjoyed the Druid and Roman culture and history that were presented in this story. I learned some things I did not know. I’ve long been fascinated with the Celts and Druids, so seeing the imagery of the Beltane festival and other symbolic ceremonies here was especially enjoyable for me. The Romans derided the British barbarians for their worship of gods and goddesses associated with nature, but there’s something comforting in that same reverence to me, and I really enjoyed reading that part.
Some things that stood out to me while reading this book. As is the case with seemingly all invasions, there was an element of a clash of religions here. The Romans sought to eradicate the Druid tradition and replace it with the Roman gods and goddesses. The same, time-worn and still true today story of “My religion is better than yours.” Seems to be at the root of so many wars, doesn’t it?
When I read of Boudica’s internal struggle with how much of the Roman culture to embrace, I started thinking about what I would do in a situation like that. Prasutagus, Boudica’s husband, was of the belief that friending the Romans would preserve their lives and livelihood much better than would an attempt to fight against them. Should they fight, they would at best end up slaves of the Empire. At worst, they would die at the hands of the Romans. So they compromised, and cooperated with the Romans and then were betrayed by the very same. At that point, freedom became paramount. Death was preferable to living as a Roman subject, in any form. I don’t know what that point is for me. What is the thing that is so important to fight for, that I must not be silent and begin to fight against it now? What is that thing I would give my life for? I do think sovereignty and freedom are in that list, but are there other things now that I should be fighting for and am not?
That is not a complete digression from the book. I think any good story should make you think about whether or not you would have the courage to act in the way the protagonist does. Of course Bouduica had her flaws. But she got it, she understood, that there are things that are worth fighting and dying for. Shouldn’t we all know at what point we would do the same?
A statue of Queen Boudica still resides near the Houses of Parliament in Britain today. I’ve pasted a link here to a Historic UK site that provides an image of the statue and a brief history of Boudica. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/England-History/Boudica.htm
I’d recommend this book to anyone with an interest in historical fiction, or Celtic and/or Roman History.
Next up? I’m not sure… I’ll have an audiobook review here soon, Harry, a History, by Melissa Anelli. I’m contemplating Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone next, as I want to re-read the entire series before the first of the last two movies comes out in November. But I have several other books I’m interested in as well, so I need to decide what to read next.

Bonus Book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Posted on 17 Jan 2010 In: Reading

I can’t really count this book in the 52 in 52 tally because I started it before I began my little adventure. But, I just now finished it, and I enjoyed it. Thought I would write about it anyway.

What if Narnia and Hogwarts were real? Or even magic itself, like we’ve read about in these books? Such is the premise of The Magicians. Both the Narnia and Harry Potter sagas are mentioned by name, but of course The Magicians has its own magical land called Fillory. Our hero, Quentin, has grown up reading all about Fillory and its stories and Queens and Kings. I couldn’t help but recall all the stories of Narnia with the mentions of Fillory. And like Harry Potter, Quentin thinks he is an ordinary student but finds himself a new pupil at Brakebills, a magical school in New York.
But this isn’t some allegory about Christianity and our choices. Nor is it the story of an epic battle between good an evil. While both elements are alluded to and serve as a subtext, the real issue at stake is what happens when we aren’t happy enough in our own reality?
The great theme of Harry Potter, that Love can conquer any evil, and that those who love us never really leave us, just happens to be told in a Magical world that exists within our own. Wands and spells are weapons, rather than guns.
As I mentioned earlier, the Chronicles of Narnia are a great Christian Allegory, with Aslan representing the Christ and the final book in the series, The Last Battle, reading much like the New Testament’s Revelation. Magic and talking animals exist in Narnia, much like in Fillory.
What makes the Harry Potter and Narnia stories so appealing, and what is the Hook in The Magicians is that so many children and adults who have read these series think how great it would be to live in Narnia, to be able to wave a wand and have the potatoes peeled. In other words, the magic in these books is a means to an end, a metaphor, an agent to progressing a story. I admit that I often joke, “If I only had a house elf…”
This rambling is getting to the point of what would really happen if we suddenly had magic at our disposal? In theory, it would fix everything… but would it? And what if those fabled places of our childhood did exist after all, and we were able to discover them, would we find them to be paradise? Is happiness and contentment a choice, really?
Of course there’s some great magical imagery in the book, and complex relationships between the characters. But these questions about what real happiness means are at the heart of the novel. And if you lose everything, what do you have left to find?
Took me a while to finish this book because of this 52 in 52 challenge I set myself, but I’m glad I read it.