Beauty in Imperfection

519dibqx6ql The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful, by Myquillyn Smith (2014)

Opening line: “As a child, I didn’t have huge dreams, impressive ambitions, or fancy prayers. I was a simple girl who looked forward to having a family and settling down in a little white house and growing something — you know, like a garden.”

Lately, I feel like I have been nesting. I promise I’m not pregnant. My husband says it’s probably all the folic acid from my new multi-vitamin. Maybe it’s just because it’s summer and I finally have the energy to do something more than lay down on our delicious couch the moment I walk in the door. All I know is that I just re-did our laundry room, turning it from a dark, wood-paneled scary place into a bright, happy, airy place in which I would gladly spend time. I think it’s my favorite transformation we’ve made in this home, and it’s no more than 40 square feet.

In any case, perhaps it’s my nesting tendencies that drew me toward this book, although I shelved it on GoodReads months ago. I finally put a hold on it at the library though, and have enjoyed reading through it over the past couple weeks.

Myquillyn Smith (I love the juxtaposition of that delightfully complicated first name paired with the most popular surname in America… a foreshadowing of her style, for sure) is the author of the popular Nesting Place blog, which developed into this book a couple years ago. At the publishing of this book, she and her husband moved 13 times in 18 years of being married (and I think they’ve moved again since), living in a whole assortment of different types of places, from renting to buying, from condos to mansions. Over the many disheartening moves, she came to the conclusion that if she waited for the perfect house to build her home, it was never going to come, and she’d be waiting forever. Instead, she could build her home no matter how the house was shaped. This book is a collection of what she’s learned doing just that.

For the most part, it seems that her main point (or at least, my biggest takeaway) is just to not be afraid to experiment and try things out. She was a big fan of asking for forgiveness from landlords rather than permission, and just went for it. Another thing she stresses is to make decorations useful and useful items beautiful. It’s clear she and her family live in the home. She repeats over and over that imperfection is beautiful, and very much the goal.

Repetition was in fact pretty common throughout the pages, and not just about imperfection. There’s a lot she repeats from chapter to chapter, and I wasn’t overly impressed by any of her ideas. However, that being said, I did feel generally inspired by the end. I felt ready to take on small tasks around the house (like said laundry room), and not worry so much about making our house perfect in this first year we own it. That was one major issue I had after buying our house — it felt like we had to make so many decisions right away, decisions we were going to have to live with for a long time. Smith gives me the assurance that we can change things whenever we want to, and small, subtle changes can have huge impact.

One of the appendices at the back of the book is what Smith calls The Imperfectionist Manifesto, which I loved. Some of my favorite tenets include:

  • WE BELIEVE that home should be the safest place on earth.
  • WE BELIEVE that authenticity trumps perfection.
  • WE BELIEVE in mismatched sheets and unmade beds.
  • WE BELIEVE that the things in our house are meant to serve us, not the other way around.
  • WE BELIEVE that both pretty pillows and dogs should be on sofas.
  • WE BELIEVE that toys and homework and smelly shoes and spilled milk are signs of life.
  • WE BELIEVE in using the good stuff now, not waiting for some future better purpose.
  • WE BELIEVE that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Okay, so that was 8 out of the 13 tenets. But I couldn’t pick just a few! Setting in to our second year of homeownership, in a house that is not anywhere near “complete” yet, I think these are some good words to live by…

1.5 stars

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Required Reading, please

51dw5mh9-zlNo god but God, by Reza Aslan (2005, updated 2011)

Opening line: “Midnight, and five hours to Marrakech. I have always had trouble sleeping on trains.”

I rarely blog about adult books, and I don’t know that I’ve ever blogged about one of the books I’ve read for my mini-book club I have with my dear friend Mallory (check out her very impressive website), whose books have so far been entirely religious non-fiction. She and I met at church, and one of the things we both love about our church home is that it is wide open in terms of what you are “supposed to” believe. In fact, it regularly makes it known that there are no “supposed tos.” We decided a few years ago that we wanted to explore what other religions are all about, because although we both definitely identify as Christian, we weren’t sure why (despite growing up in church). And so we embarked on a journey, one that has led us through Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as touching on several others).

I think both of us would say this one has been one of our favorites. Early on, we wanted to learn more about Islam. With so much happening in the world that seems tied (correctly and incorrectly) to this massive religion (we’re talking 1.5 billion Muslims, guys), we felt the need to be able to speak to what we regularly felt was just blatant misconception. It took a few missteps (and several very dense books) to get us to this one, but, at least for me, this is just what I was looking for.

Author Reza Aslan provides an incredibly encompassing picture of the religion of Islam, starting with its inception  with the Prophet (well, actually well before that), and traveling all the way through its current reformation. Somehow, in less than 300 pages, the reader gets a broad tutorial in the basic beliefs, the widespread historical context, the varying sects, and the very contentious political implications of Islam in its current state. All while keeping me engaged. I think his skill lies in his position as a youngish Muslim who, while incredibly smart and well-researched, is personally connected and invested in the future of this religion. The text never comes across as preachy (he’s not trying to convert non-Muslims by any means), and while the majority of the text is framed as informational, he definitely has opinions on how Islam is represented (see: poorly). In fact, my first encounter with Reza Aslan (although I didn’t know it at the time) was in this ridiculous CNN interview in which he refuses to let the “journalists” talk shit about his religion. (I apologize for my sarcastic quotes. But, like Professor Aslan, I have a hard time when smart people ignore basic facts.)

In any case, I feel like this book should almost be required reading in this day and age. Like he tells us in his last chapter of his book, Islam is in the process of undergoing a major reformation, just as Christianity did those hundreds of years ago with good ol’ Martin Luther. It’s all over the place right now, both metaphorically and literally, and NO, THE VAST MAJORITY OF MUSLIMS DO NOT BELIEVE IN KILLING PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT BELIEFS. If we’re ever going to come to any sort of world peace (beauty contestant answer, I know), we have to actually learn something about one another. Let’s make it happen.

2.5 stars

A beautiful surprise

51fb-u69shlBehind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (2012)

Opening line: “Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station.”

This one was tough. It took me like 6 months to read, because I could only take so much at a time. And I was just reading it. It’s unimaginable to be living it. But this incredibly researched piece of stunning non-fiction absolutely deserves it’s National Book Award (and the four other awards it won).

Author Katherine Boo married into Indian culture and became fascinated by the startling clash of affluence so close to extreme poverty that she saw in Mumbai, particularly in the Annawadi slum on the other side of the road from the Mumbai airport. For years, Katherine spent her days among the residents of this slum, chronicling their struggles and successes, their joys and pain, their complications and hopes. While obviously life in the Annawadi slum is horrendously difficult, what this book does so well is show us privileged white Americans that that’s not all it is. Katherine profiles several Annawadian families over these 250 pages, including a family with a productive garbage picking business, a young woman who hopes to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi, and her mother who plans on taking on the roll of the “slum-lord” of the community. It’s not about feeling sorry for these people. It’s about seeing their strength in spite of and because of their surroundings. It’s about noticing their humanity, recognizing pieces of them that are in all of us. It’s about realizing our complicity in creating a world where realities like these exist.

That’s not even to mention her writing, which is SO DAMN FANTASTIC, it’s breathtaking.

Everyone should read this book, but be wary of when. This is not a quick or enjoyable read, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look again. But oh-so-worthwhile.

2.5 star

 

From Death Eaters to Death Investigators

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbaith (2013)

Opening Line: “The buzz in the streets was like the humming of flies.”

I don’t read mystery thrillers too often (at least not adult ones), but everyone knows I can’t resist J.K. Rowling (the face behind the Robert Galbraith pen name). And she didn’t disappoint.

The plot revolves around the sudden death of supermodel Lula Landry, who fell from her apartment balcony one freezing winter night in London. Police ruled it a suicide, victim of depression and the wild whirls of fame. But when her brother comes calling at the offices of P.I. Cormoran Strike, he cries murder, and it’ll be up to Strike to prove it.

Strike is the character to pay attention to in this book. He’s the one who’s a mysterious mess, and while Lula’s death is certainly intriguing, she’s dead before the novel begins. We don’t get to know her hardly at all. Instead, we get to know Strike, the wounded veteran with a basically bankrupt detective agency and a woeful end of a love life, who — despite it all — is somehow a character I was instantly drawn to. Add to that, Robin, the assistant he can’t afford to pay, mistakenly sent to him from the temp agency. She’s the smartest and quickest assistant he’s ever had, and although she gets a permanent job offer from a different company before the week is out, she hesitates. Because working for Strike is the most exciting thing she’s done in a long time.

As happens quite a lot with me, this was an audiobook read, so I’m not sure if the clues to the Lula mystery were really there all along or not, but for me this one wrapped up much like an episode of Scooby Doo, with the mask ripped off and Strike explaining to the audience what really happened. To be honest, I kind of liked it that way, but this might be a turn off for some readers. If not, there are already two more Cormoran Strike novels waiting in the wings.

1.5 stars

Another South Carolinian Debutante

Girls in Trucks, by Katie Crouch (2008)

Opening Line: “If you are white, are a girl or boy between the ages of nine and twelve, and, according to a certain committee of mothers, are good enough to associate with Charleston’s other good girls and boys, than Wednesday night is a busy night for you.”

For some reason, the opening line to Katie Crouch’s debut novel reminds me of the opening line to Pride and Prejudice. They’re really not that similar, but the impression is somewhat complementary: If you grow up in this society, you will be paired with someone and you will like it. Pairing up is not an option, but a necessity. And that is what seems to plague poor Sarah Walters throughout her life (and the life of this novel).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in what feels like the late 70s/early 80s, Sarah is a hesitant debutante at best. Part of the Charleston Camellias, a prestigious society of ladies, she is expected to become a good Southern woman, following the path laid out for her by generations of previous Camellias. Instead, Sarah follows in the path of her older sister Eloise, and jets up north for college to get away from it all. While this seems like a whole new wonderful world to Sarah, reality sets in, and she finds that a self-directed path is not as easy as she hoped. And despite her desire to get away from the debutante matchmaking, her failed relationships and search for the perfect man dominate her life anyway. It isn’t until a family tragedy brings Sarah home that she begins to see that maybe a life in the South wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

I was drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, and as a brand new South Carolinian. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, and was unnecessarily complicated by strange shifts in point of view/voice. However, Crouch does give us snippets of unexpected humor sprinkled where they are needed to keep us from spiraling into Sarah’s despair, which helped keep me turning the pages.

1.5 stars

An elephant-sized mystery

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult (2014)

Opening Line: “When it comes to memory, I’m kind of a pro. I may be only thirteen, but I’ve studied it the way other kids my age devour fashion magazines.”

It’s probably not a surprise that anytime I’m in an airport, I’m bound to spend at LEAST a half hour in the cramped book store, perusing all the new books. Ever since becoming a junior high librarian, my perusing shelves of books (particularly adult books) has significantly declined. All through the school year, my TBR stack is like the Mount Everest of tween and teen lit, so the only time I really peruse is in the airport! And that’s where I first read the dust jacket for Leaving Time.

Combine reliable Jodi Picoult and elephants, and you’ve got a book I will probably enjoy.

This one focuses on Jenna Metcalf, 8th grader whose mom disappeared 10 years ago after a horrible accident at the elephant sanctuary owned by her family. One woman wound up trampled and one woman (Alice, Jenna’s mom), disappeared without a trace. Since then, Jenna has been struggling to put the pieces together and find out what happened to her mom. She seeks out the help of two people: Serenity Jones, a used-to-be-famous psychic, and Virgil Stanhope, one of the former detectives on the case who has changed his name and his career path. These three misfits have a lot of questions about that night a decade ago, but the answers are not what they expected.

I was totally surprised by the twists in this book, although I had the distinct feeling that I shouldn’t have been after they happened. Summer is a great time for mysteries, I’ve decided, because you can stay up late reading/listening, and keep listening as you are doing all the mindless things you have to do in the summer, like mow the lawn (which I did for the first time tonight!), or, as I tend to do in the summer, pack up your entire life and move. I also loved learning all about the elephants, obviously. Elephants are my favorite, partly because, as she shows in this book, their personalities and emotions are so similar to humans. Jodi Picoult did a lot of research for this novel, including spending time at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. And guys, they have live Ele-Cams! Bookmark it! (Pro Tip: don’t try to watch at night, because it will be dark.)

As I said, I can always count on Jodi to pull out an emotional and heart-felt story, and this one was no exception. 2 stars

A Rom-Com, of the intellectual and relatively depressing variety…

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Opening line: “To start with, look at all the books.”

It’s hard to deny my attraction to a book that begins this way. A coworker of mine several years ago told me that as a former English major, I should definitely read The Marriage Plot. She was right — it’s got the fixings to a novel I should love: literary references out the wazoo, multiple character perspectives, a sense of epic storytelling (crossing time periods and oceans), and a complicated romance.

Madeleine Hanna is an English major working on her thesis about the “marriage plot” of literature’s great novelists, like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes. But while her intellectual mind is caught up in the romantic structure of the page, her real life romance is much more complicated, featuring two very different gentlemen. The first is Mitchell, who was “friend-zoned” freshmen year but still holds a torch for our heroine, while the second is Leonard, a mysterious biology student who intrigues and enchants Madeleine like no one has before. And while this might sound like the makings of a very common modern-day marriage plot, Eugenides does what he does best by complicating things with intense, intricately-crafted characters. Mitchell heads off to Europe and India after college with his roommate to figure out what the hell he’s doing with his life with or without Madeleine, while Madeleine and Leonard deal with Leonard’s apparent bipolar disorder, or as it was known in the 1980s when this tale is set, manic depression.

I liked this book. I wouldn’t stretch it to love, but, like I said before, what Jeffrey Eugenides does, he does well (see my review of his previous book Middlesex). I admire his character development, the vastness of his landscape, both in terms of time and place, and his way of piecing together stories in a way that adds depth and intrigue.

1.5 stars, edging to 2.