Well, dang! I need to return “The Happiness Project” to the library because there are people waiting for it. I like this book, I really do, even though there’s something about it…that part of me kept wanting to hate.
I came across it through some Internet hopscotching. Our Assistant Library Director, Greg Mickells, chose an intriguing Seth Godin posting as a discussion piece for a Management Team meeting. I was interested in a post by the author of the blog, The Brazen Careerist. As I was reading her blog entries, I clicked on her mention of Gretchen Rubin, saw Rubin’s website, and promptly put a request in for “The Happiness Project.”
So that’s how I got to it.
Rubin decides that she’s going to make a “reality project” of spending one year doing the things that happiness research indicates will make her, well, happy. The chapters go month by month with her reporting on that month’s theme, her resolutions, and the outcome. There’s a wide variety here…singing with her daughters, being the one to get the cash instead of insisting that her husband do it, getting exercise, being herself, and on and on.
I love a memoir, and so I was ready to enjoy this. I’m intrigued by research about happiness…I learned so much from Martin Seligman’s “Learned Optimism,” and that was in this book’s favor.
I have a couple of quibbles. I would have liked for Rubin to tell a little more about the research. She includes a sturdy “further reading” section, but I wanted her to talk a little more about just what this research was about. And maybe I would have liked for her to be less self-centered. At a certain point, I wanted to give her some Loretta Leach (my mom) or Hazel Schneringer (my mom’s mom) advice, such as “Quit your bellyaching” or “Some fresh air will do you good!” or “The day goes better when you make your bed!” or “Let me show you how to make some really good devilled eggs.”
When I was telling people about this book, I said that despite the variety of resolutions that Rubin describes, basically her year comes down to getting out of the kinds of ruts to which we all cling even though we know they aren’t doing us any good. And yet we return to them over and over because they’re familiar. So we lose our temper, skip exercise, and neglect to send a card. Rubin used the year to get out of those ruts and cut some new grooves. Grooves trump ruts.
So, really, despite my complaints, I liked this book. Rubin seemed like a friend I liked despite myself. I admire her gumption and her willingness to tell us about her less lovely aspects. I appreciate that she wanted to do better. So she’s been an over-achiever. So she lives in New York. So she’s rich enough to afford a nanny and a housekeeper. So what!
And she doesn’t need me to bring this book to anyone’s attention. Sunday evening as I was finishing it up, I saw a promotional for a story about Rubin on Omaha’s Channel 6, and then my husband pointed out an article about her in the Sunday New York Times.
I hope you’ll read it, and then talk with me about it. I’m recommending this to people who like contemporary memoirs, who make their own resolutions, and who enjoy personality.
I’m continuing my reading journey through the current American Library Association Notable Books List. You can also find it divvied up by fiction and nonfiction in the library’s “Books Movie and More” website.
One of this year’s themes from the Notable List is revealing itself–the impact of multiple identities. They were critical to the novel, “Await Your Reply,” and to the nonfiction book about human smuggling, “Snakehead.” And now here they are again, at the heart of another nonfiction title,”Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art” by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.
I thoroughly enjoyed “Provenance.” Salisbury and Sujo create a strong sense of story despite having to veer from the story to educate the reader about the art world. With only a few exceptions, they share just enough information to show when something is critical or important, without losing their narrative thread.
The story itself is fascinating. In the 1980s and 1990s, a mastermind named John Drewe teamed up with an artist to sell fake paintings as the real things by artists such as Giacometti, Paul Klee, and Ben Nicolson. Drewe realized that he could not do this on a profitable enough scale without providing the kind of provenance, or documented history, that would convince scrupulous collectors and museums of authenticity. He compromised the archives of London’s Tate Gallery, for instance, inserting pages into catalogs of exhibits from the 1950s, creating rubber stamps from reputable galleries, and using names of people known or unknown to create a history for paintings. Apparently a pathological liar, Drewe developed the persona of an educated and cultured person. He dressed well. He spoke in an artistocratic way. He got people on his side.
Equally interesting are the parts about John Myatt, the artist who could paint in so many styles so convincingly. Drewe spotted his vulnerability immediately.
Salisbury and Sujo begin by telling how Drewe got underway and gained momentum. Then they turn toward the people involved in the unraveling and taking the case to trial. The archivists who weren’t convinced by Drewe. The keeper of the legacy of Giacometti who knew that certain works were wrong. The police officers who had to build a case. Drewe’s spurned common-law wife.
The story’s a fascinating one, and that it’s so well told and documented makes it a perfect choices for the Notables List. It raises pithy questions about identity and what it means to lead people to believe you’re someone you aren’t. Certainly it raises questions about art–what does it mean that a particular person painted something? How much does a piece of art stand on its own apart from its history?
I’ll be recommending this to many readers–to those who love a mystery, who enjoy art, who are generally on the lookout for a well-told story, to lovers of nonfiction. L. Kent Wolgamott mentioned this in an article in Sunday’s Journal-Star as a good one for true-crime readers.
And I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next Notable I read will be as satisfying as this one.
Just today, I returned a library copy of “The Snakehead: an Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream” by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s yet another of this year’s American Library Association’s Notable Books.
I appreciate how the Notables list introduces me to a wide variety of nonfiction. “The Snakehead” is about human smuggling, specifically the smuggling of people from China to the United States. The story begins with a description of a ship running aground off of the Rockaway Peninsula in 1993. The police officers who spot the ship hear screams, and realize that its passengers are jumping into the ocean. The ship, the Golden Venture, is engaged in smuggling over 300 people into the United States. It’s just a tip of the iceberg of human smuggling detailed in this book. Keefe focuses on a group of smugglers from Fujian Province in China, operating primarily out of New York’s Chinatown. In particular, he follows the career of a woman known as Sister Ping.
Sister Ping runs a business in Chinatown and considers herself a pillar of the community. But it’s impossible to be engaged in this kind of smuggling without being involved in some remarkably dangerous relationships with gangs and the underworld. U.S. law enforcement must wait a long time to pull together the information to convict her.
Although primarily the story of SIster Ping, the book broadens in scope to include how political angles such as China’s population policies September 11 impact the destiny of people entering the United States illegally. Keefe also explores the international scope of smuggling, showing how just one country that doesn’t enforce immigration and identity laws allows human smuggling to around the world. Behind all of this is a sense that people are willing to sacrifice mightily to enter our country.
I began the book feeling a strong sense of story here, but as I progressed, I felt that Keefe lost the plot thread of Sister Ping. Had he been able to sustain that narrative, the book would have enjoyed a stronger sense of story. As it is, it’s a perfectly acceptable nonfiction book on a topic of interest.
I happened to be reading the novel, “Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon at the same time I was reading this. I’m often surprised by the connections among otherwise unrelated titles. Both of these books revolve around people who use multiple identities. Both raise the question of what we’re willing to give up in order to thwart the law, and the degree to which we’re willing to sacrifice friends and family in the process.
I’d recommend “Snakehead” to people interested in China and to those interested generally in politics and current events.
Identity, it’s all about identity. Three strands of story eventually come together. One, a man looking for his missing twin from one state to another, following a tantalizing trail all the way to the Arctic. Another, a young woman who’s run away from Ohio to Nebraska with her former teacher. Finally, a man who engages in illegal financial activities with his father, travelling all over the country under various names. Each strand engages with that missing twin.
I had a particular interest in the Nebraska setting, which is along Lake McConaughy. In the story, Nebraska has been in an extended drought and so the lake is practically dry. The two, George and Lucy, stay in a big old house just back from the abandoned “Lighthouse Motel.” One day, George shows Lucy the remains of the former town of Lemoyne, which was flooded out when the dam went online. Foundations, buildings, and streets of what used to be a town are visible on the bed of what used to be a deep lake. He tells her about his brother who died in the lake. He suggests that they’ll be leaving their old identities behind.
I found myself a little frustrated by the three strands of story because I wanted each one to get my full attention. Each is compelling on its own. Chaon draws people who seem real, especially in the way that they make room for other people in their lives, make adjustments, make accomodations, and then eventually wonder if they’ve gone too far, wonder if that other person is worthy of their trust. He places them in clearly dangerous situations with evil people.
I read this book fairly quickly–Chaon moves the stories along. I’m pretty sure that I missed clues along the way, but I appreciated the sense that Chaon was crafting the story well, leading to a reasonable conclusion. I was not disappointed.
I’ll recommend this to people who like suspense, who appreciate a mystery, and who enjoy thinking about what makes people behave the way they do.
A few days ago, I finished “China Road” by Rob Gifford.
I chose it because Gifford will be in town this spring for one of the EN Thompson Forum speeches at the Lied Center, because Gifford’s a reporter for NPR, which I love, and because I’ve had an ongoing interest in China.
Gifford uses the device of traveling China’s Route 312 from east to west, from cities to rural areas, from prosperity to poverty. Along the way, he talks with many people and takes a few chances to get a good story.
What Gifford does especially well is let the Chinese people speak for themselves. Of course, it’s the reporter’s gift to ask the questions that inspire interesting answers.
I was especially intrigued by his chapter, “The Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” The intersection of this cultural treasure with spies and treasure hunters in the early 20th century illustrates many of the issues of how China has interacted with the rest of the world.
What the book seemed to lack, due to its structure, was a sense of getting to know anyone, or any place, very deeply. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but it an outcome of the book’s structure.
Looking back on this one, what I’ll recall is that China is changing quickly, that it’s big and will have a huge impact on our planet, and that China has a compelling history that is huge. Pieces of that history are seen in each individual that Gifford encounters on Route 312.
I’m glad that I read this book before I hear Gifford speak. I recommend it to others who intend to attend the forum, to people interested in China, and to NPR fans.