What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much (and 4 other books!)

In addition to finishing the books I got for Christmas in time for my birthday, I’ve read a few other new-to-me books recently, including one that actually has the alternate title What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much!  I learned something from each of these books.

The Dance of Anger by Harriet G. Lerner

This is one of the most helpful self-help books I’ve ever read.  It explains several ways that anger typically functions in women’s relationships (with men, family members, friends, and co-workers) and how our handling of anger often keeps a relationship stuck in frustrating patterns.  Although the book focuses on women and makes some generalizations about what women do vs. what men do, it’s more insightful than stereotypical, and some of the strategies could easily be useful to men, too, when they find themselves stuck in the same situations.  A particularly helpful section talks about the formation of triangles in which “we reduce anxiety in one relationship by focusing on a third party, who we unconsciously pull into the situation to lower the emotional intensity in the original pair.”  I’ve sometimes realized that I was doing this, or that two people had pulled me into the middle of a conflict that was really between them, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to get out of it.  The book explains how to figure out why it’s happening and how to get out of it by “staying calm, staying out, and hanging in”–none of which is especially easy to do, but the clear explanation of steps makes it sound possible, at least!  I also appreciate this book’s clear explanation of a pattern in which one person consistently “over-functions” (does too much) and the other “under-functions” and why both people find this difficult to stop.

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

This dystopian techno-thriller starts with a fascinating premise and goes on into a saga that seemed kind of muddled…but I read this book at a bad time, when I was under a lot of stress and often reading for only 5-10 minutes at a stretch…so there’s only one of my criticisms that I think is valid, which is that there are too many places where the narrator says things of this basic format: “It would turn out that [paragraph of very detailed explanation], but of course we didn’t know that yet.”  I think the tension would have been maintained more effectively by keeping the reader as puzzled as the characters were.

Anana is a young woman working for her father at The North American Dictionary of the English Language, one of the few dictionaries that still publishes a print edition now that most people do everything online.  Just in the past few years, a smartphone called the Meme has become indispensable in many people’s lives, including Anana’s–it’s so convenient how your Meme learns to order your favorite meal just as you feel hungry or hail you a cab as soon as you decide to go somewhere!  Anana’s father is concerned that the Meme’s manufacturer is buying up dictionaries to improve its Word Exchange, the handy app for those times when you can’t quite recall the word you want to use.  Seems like those times are happening more and more for frequent users…and then Anana’s father disappears, and she finds something bizarre happening in the basement….

If you liked Snow Crash (reviewed here) and The Grimm Legacy (reviewed by my son here), you will enjoy The Word Exchange.  However, if you know a preteen or teenager who loved The Grimm Legacy, you should read The Word Exchange first to see if it is too scary or has too much profanity for your kid.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Unlike most stories about someone dying of a terrible disease at a young age, this one does not feature profound drama and moral uplift.  This is the story of a 17-year-old boy whose biggest realizations are that he’s pretty much a self-centered jerk and that someone really can die for no good reason.  He doesn’t discover the secret to not being a jerk or the beautiful moral of his friend’s decline; he just learns a little more about how he and life in general kind of suck–and yet this is an insightful and hilarious book and a lot of fun to read!

Greg is navigating his senior year of high school with a strategy of being lightly friendly to every clique without being part of any of them.  He only has one friend–whom he prefers to call a “co-worker”–Earl, a black guy who lives in a dysfunctional family in a bad neighborhood, while Greg is white and middle-class and has parents a bit more attentive than he’d like.  Earl and Greg have been making movies together for years, but they never show them to anyone.  On the evening of his first day of school, Greg’s mother tells him that Rachel Kushner has been diagnosed with leukemia.  She expects this to be devastating news for him, but Rachel is just a girl that Greg pretended to like in sixth grade when he was trying to make another girl jealous; he never had any special feelings for her.  Now his mom informs him that she and Rachel’s mom decided that Greg can help Rachel feel better by making her laugh: “Rachel can really use a friend, honey.”  So Greg and Rachel have to hang out together.

He does make her laugh, and it kind of goes okay, but there’s an odd phenomenon that Greg notices early on:

Basically, my point is not that you listen to people to learn anything interesting.  You’re doing it to be nice and make them like you, because everyone likes to talk.

But this theory did not apply to Rachel, somehow.  I would go to her house determined to get her to do the talking, and then I’d show up and pretty soon I would be talking more than someone who was on crystal meth.

This observation is followed by a conversation written as if it were a screenplay, in which Greg asks Rachel what television she enjoys, she responds vaguely, he begins ranting about the Food Network…and four hours later, he’s musing, “…it’s weird that we have animals living in our homes.”  I’ve totally found myself in that type of conversation and felt embarrassed about it after the fact, haven’t you?  Greg wishes he could stop doing this, but he never figures out how.

Meanwhile, he and Rachel do not fall in love, which is another thing that’s refreshing about this book.

They look into each other’s eyes.

If this were a touching romantic story, in this moment some STRANGE NEW FEELING would wash over Greg–a sense of being understood, in a basic way that he almost never is understood.  Then, Greg and Rachel would make out like lovesick badgers.

However, this is not a touching romantic story.  There is no NEW FEELING that washes over Greg.  There is no BADGER MAKE-OUT SESSION.

Instead, Greg sort of shifts uncomfortably and breaks eye contact.

If you’d rather read something like this than a touching romantic story, and if you don’t mind a lot of profanity and occasional talk of boners, this is the book for you.

I saw last year’s film before I read the book on which it’s based.  Jesse Andrews wrote the screenplay as well, so I was surprised to discover that it’s very different from the book, particularly the ending.  The book is set in Pittsburgh (where I live) and mentions real neighborhoods, but the characters attend fictional Benton High School, whereas the movie was set and filmed in Andrews’s actual alma mater, Schenley High School–it closed a few years ago, due to maintenance issues, which is a terrible shame because it’s such a great building, so it was wonderful to see it onscreen.  The film also used real houses instead of sets and overall gives a great sense of what Pittsburgh feels like, as well as being an excellent story with good acting, so I highly recommend it.

How to Be a Heroine or, What I’ve Learned by Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis

After adoring Wuthering Heights since age twelve, the author began to question whether Cathy is really her ideal role model after her best friend suggested that Jane Eyre offers a much better heroine.  Rereading both books with this question in mind leads Samantha Ellis into a quest through dozens of novels, seeking to determine what each heroine can teach her about the female experience.  If you hate spoilers, don’t read this book until you have read all the books discussed!  If you don’t mind learning some of the plot of books you haven’t read, though, Ellis does a good job of explaining enough that you can understand her analysis.

This book is also about Ellis’s own life and the ways in which she has been a heroine, or not, in her own eyes.  That could be tedious if she were an uninteresting person, but she isn’t.  Her parents were Iraqi Jews who had fled to England and were never able to return to Iraq.  They socialized mainly within their small ethnic/religious community and strongly expected Ellis to behave like a proper Iraqi Jewish daughter.  She ended up going away to university, getting involved with various men outside the community, becoming a playwright, and generally behaving badly in her parents’ eyes–so fictional heroines played an important role in helping her through the struggles of defying expectations.

It would be easy to add a ton of books to your reading list after reading this one!  I didn’t, though, because for most of the books I hadn’t read already, her summaries helped me to decide that I’d rather skip this one or at least make it a low priority.  Still, I enjoyed reading about the books and how they related to her life, and her writing style is really fun to read!

Get Out of My Life! But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony E. Wolf

My partner Daniel’s father gave us this book about raising teenagers to help us strategize as our 11-year-old son matures.  I love the title and the author’s understanding of the exasperatingly contradictory way in which teenagers tend to interact with their parents.  Overall, the book’s message can be summarized as, “This is a stage.  It sucks, but someday it will be over.  Here are some coping strategies.”  Most of the strategies seem pretty good.  I’ve already had some success with the tips for resisting the urge to continue an argument!

The current edition is a 2002 revision of the book first published in 1991.  He didn’t update the names of the hypothetical teens in the examples (Jennifer, Allen, Lisa, Jeremy, Debby, Todd, etc.), which could make the book seem laughably dated–but for me, having been a teenager in 1991 alongside kids with those names, it helped me relate to the teen’s point of view as well as the parent’s and to remember the painful struggles my friends and I had with our parents during adolescence.  Overall, the book still feels current enough.  Yes, it now has a chapter about the Internet, and I think the advice there can easily be extended to cover the mobile devices that are part of our world now.

The one section I think is badly out of date already was dangerously over-generalizing even in 2002.  That’s the beginning of the chapter about drugs and drinking, which says that America has two separate drug problems: “The first involves the inner-city poor and a number of highly addictive, highly dangerous drugs, especially heroin and cocaine.  The second problem involves most of the rest of the teenagers in this country, who indulge in a variety of drugs but rarely or never the most dangerous ‘hard’ drugs.”  As a social scientist who’s been studying inner-city poor teens of the 1990s and paying attention to research on current drug trends, I can tell you this is mostly crap.  Illicit sales of heroin and cocaine are conducted mostly by inner-city guys from poor neighborhoods who don’t use those drugs themselves, and about half their customers are rich and middle-class white people, some of whom are teenagers.  These days, heroin is a problem among people who became addicted to opiates when taking prescription painkillers and turned to heroin after the prescription ran out.  A lot of teenagers have wisdom teeth extracted and are prescribed opiates for that.  The best way to protect your teenager from opiate addiction is to refuse the Vicodin, Percocet, or OxyContin, helping your teenager to manage pain with non-narcotic medications, cold or heat, and relaxation if at all possible.

Anyway, take that part with a grain of salt, but read the rest of the chapter about drugs and drinking.  Wolf gives sound advice about how to stay calm about the fact that your teenager is more likely than not to try alcohol and/or marijuana, while being firm about avoiding the risks that really matter most, like drunk driving.


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2 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned By Reading Too Much (and 4 other books!)

  1. Pingback: Book reviews coming in 2016 | The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: Wallflowers and Oranges Unbound! (book reviews) | The Earthling's Handbook

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