Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kelly's Book 2: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Dear Jenny,

I had a difficult time picking a second book. That last one was tough to get through so I wanted something easier, but I couldn't decide which one. So I just lined my 13 remaining books up in the order that I usually line books up (by height first, then by color) (not kidding) and chose the next one in that line. That gave me Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Have you read this book? I really know nothing about it. It was one of my grandfather's favorite books and when he died, I took this book from his bookshelf. So the book itself is somewhat sentimental.

Except... this particular copy is from 1980, so there is a banner at the top of it selling the movie "Tess" with the tagline "the powerful new Roman Polanski film from Columbia pictures." Not being a huge fan of ol' Roman, I may have to slap a sticker over this part of the book while I am reading it.

Side story: Long ago, I had to do the same thing to the front of The Silence of the Lambs because the moth freaked me out. The sticker I chose was a ridiculously happy cartoon cat face. Several years ago, I put it on the giveaway book shelf at work and then I recently saw it re-surface there. With that sticker still on the front! It's really funny. If I see it again, I'll take a photo. That cat face doesn't really "fit" with the book at all.

For blocking out Roman's name, I may just use a plain white label. That guy gives me the creeps.

All right. On to Tess!


Edited to add:
PS -- I went ahead and put a label over the unpleasant part of the book. It's not Tess's fault that some jerk's name is on her book, right? ;)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Completed: The Richest Man in Babylon

Dear Jenny,

Well, it probably took me far longer than necessary to read this tiny volume (excluding the 20+ years it has already sat on my shelf, of course...) but, because each chapter/parable has a nugget of information to deliver, I decided to read one per day so that I could digest the information for a bit. Also, it was kind of difficult to get through. :)

Now sit back, pour yourself a drink, and get ready for a long review. Probably should have done a couple of "in progress" ones on this one along the way to ease the length of this one... too late now, though!

My biggest fear when reading this book was that I would think "Crap. I've had this book on my shelf for over 20 years and here is the information I should have know about money 20 years ago." The good news is that that was mostly not true. The potentially bad news is... it might have been a little bit true. But I'll get to that in a moment.

The thing that was supposed to make this book "more readable" was what turned me off the most about it: the parable format. The writing was difficult to get through, what with the "thou"s and the "coins of gold" and the "clay tablets" and all. But... the principles really are sound. So I kept at it.

Some of the early parables seemed to repeat themselves, which I also found annoying. I later discovered that these were published separately and then combined into this book at a later date, so there is some overlap. On the other hand, sometimes it's good to drive the point home?

The Basics
The basic "rules of monetary acquisition," as presented on the very first page:
1) Start thy purse to fattening
2) Control thy expenditures
3) Make thy gold multiply
4) Guard thy treasures from loss
5) Make of thy dwelling a profitable investment
6) Insure a future income
7) Increase thy ability to earn

But I actually found even more value as I read further on. I'm going to cover the stuff I found most interesting.

A part of all you earn is yours to keep
One of the principles that is repeated throughout the book is one that Michael Pollack frequently told me: pay yourself 10% of your income. This is sound advice, assuming you're not extremely in debt (which I will get to). Basically, live on 90% of your income and put 10% in savings. Then make that 10% work for you to generate more dough. Figuring out where to cut corners can be a challenge, but really, it's a good idea.

Corollary: live beneath your means
"That which each of us calls our 'necessary expenses' will always grow to equal our incomes unless we protest to the contrary." (29) This statement? So. True. (I even underlined it in the book!)

I think many of us can see that happen with the cars we drive. I'm not actually living large in that area -- my car is over 8 years old -- but... it's also not a Geo Metro (my first [less expensive] car). My grandfather always bought Toyota Tercels and drive them into the ground (200-300k miles on those puppies!) He was a good example of observing this principle.

Thinking to myself: "Hey -- I used to make way less than I make right now and I figured out how to get by on that" is a great step towards answering the question, "How do I live on 90% of my income?" Sure, some expenses are going to go up at the same rate that our income goes up, but others? Well... this is a long way of saying: "Live beneath your means." Yeah.

I'm happy to report that, as a result of reading this book, I've upped the amount we are putting in savings. Should have been doing that all along, but hey -- better late than never, right?

"Luck" as part of accumulating wealth
When I first saw the title of this chapter on luck, I thought it would be about not relying on luck to get you anything. But the way "luck" is defined here is actually "opportunity" (vs. gambling, which is clearly stated as not the way to become wealthy) I found this fascinating, because it's not something I think about very much. The concept that procrastination can hurt you if you ignore opportunities to increase wealth particularly struck a chord with me.

Personally, I am not at all entrepreneurial. I never think in terms of "how can this idea make me money?" But Bill always has great ideas -- clever ideas that would make money if acted upon. The kind of ideas that show up again years later, making money for someone else. So this chapter was interesting to me because it basically said, "Got a good idea that you know will make you money? Do it." Again: duh.

Of course, this does not take into account the very real problem of: "I already work a full time job and I like to spend time with my family. So how am I going to find time to make this idea come to fruition?" What they call "procrastination," some might call "living my life." Still. It's food for thought. Got a good idea? Act on it, make it happen, make dough off of it.

So... while I'm not creating the next best-selling iPhone app in my spare time, I have been selling stuff we don't need on eBay this year. Not sure that that's exactly nailing this idea, but I'm taking the opportunity to get rid of stuff and make a little dough. Go, me. I'll be the Richest Man in Babylon in no time! Or... not.

Owning your home
So this one is covered under the principle above: "Make of thy dwelling a profitable investment" (35). This one definitely has caveats if you live somewhere where the cost of living is, er, well... how shall I put this? Oh, yes: Totally out of control. Yup -- that about sums it up.

So, yeah -- in concept, rent is flushing money down the toilet and owning your house means, basically, putting your dough in savings (AKA "a profitable investment"). Assuming, of course, the housing market doesn't tank where you are. Or that things aren't so over-priced that you could actually make more dough off the money you save renting v. owning.

Of course, we do own our home, even though things here are, as I said, totally out of control. So I'm technically taking the advice of the book. But our rent was 1/3 of what we pay for our mortgage. Soooo... could we have turned that 2/3 into enough profit to make it even? I don't know.

For me, "investing money" is another full-time job. And if you're not that interested in it (which I am not), it's even worse. Why the heck do I want to come home and do my investment job when I'm exhausted after my real job? On the other hand, Bill really is interested in this stuff, so perhaps he could make that happen. Sooo... I guess we are sort of already drinking this book's Kool-aid. But there are plenty of arguments against it, depending on your situation.

Honestly, just some damn good advice:
"If you desire to help thy friend, do so in a way that will not bring thy friend's burdens upon thyself." (76)

[Are you still with me? This has to be the longest blog post in history. I'm sorry. This might be longer than the actual book itself. Almost there...]

Where the determination is, the way can be found.
I love this message. Basically: work hard. This sentiment is close to my heart because I've been there and done that. I must admit that my bleeding heart protests: "But... but... sometimes this isn't an option." And perhaps for someone who is truly disabled, it isn't. But for the rest of us: be determined, find work, keep at it, succeed. Done. This is a very direct message in a world that seems, at times, to be overly indulgent and you know what? I'm okay with that.

Debt reduction
Okay. So here is the part where my fears sort of came to light, but then, after doing the math, not really. For a person in debt, the book advices to pay yourself 10% of your income, pay your debtors 20%, and live on 70%. When I first read this, I felt sick.

As you know, when I graduated from college, my debt was crippling. Without getting into hard numbers here, I owed about 9 times as much as I was making in a year. I went back to school and changing careers to increase my income (also advised in this book, by the way), but I stilled owed 3 times as much as my yearly salary. At that time, I consulted with investment experts and every one agreed that I would never make as much in savings as I was wasting in debt so it made more fiscal sense to pay off my debt, rather than put the money in savings.

When I read this book, I thought, "Crap. Should I have been putting 10% of my income into savings?" It's hard not to think of the savings I would have right now with that money. But then I did the math. The book does not account for interest on the outstanding loans. If I had paid myself and paid my debtors off at the suggested rate in the book, not only would I have not paid off my debt, but I would be in more debt now than I was 16 years ago.

I think this might be good advice for someone who has a "reasonable" amount of debt (whatever that is -- the book advises against any kind at all, of course), but if you're drowning in it like I was, this is not a viable option. So, although I first broke into a sweat about whether or not I should have been saving way back when, doing the math was a good wake up call that that really was not an option for me.

Final thoughts
Reading the reviews on Amazon (and it's well reviewed -- 4.5 stars with 459 reviewers), it seems like four other books came up as recommended/better than this book: Think and Grow Rich, The Millionaire Next Door, Rich Dad Poor Dad, and The One Minute Millionaire. I'm putting that out there, but I know I will not read them. I could not possibly be less interested in this topic.

However, by forcing myself to read this book (and write the longest review in history), I have thought more about money, how we spend it, how we save it, and how we can make it work for us to increase our wealth. I guess reading a book like this is like taking vitamins: not really a great experience, but it does benefit you, even if you don't like it at the time.

I think my next book has to be a "fluff" one. I need a break. (And you probably do too, after reading this review!)


Thursday, January 27, 2011

OTC: The Great Gatsby Cartoons

Here's a little off topic chatter...I'm only about 30 or 40 pages into Oracle Bones, so I don't have much to tell you there.

But this is hilarious! Cartoons based on The Great Gatsby. Is it still one of your favorites?

Here's something else I stumbled across this week. A video of 2 kids performing a hilarious parody of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which is my favorite poem.

Do I dare to eat a peach? You're damn right I'll eat a peach!

I'm pretty glad it's the weekend. Maybe I can actually get some reading done...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jenny's Book 2: Oracle Bones


Ohmigod. I am the worst friend ever. I went to pick up Oracle Bones today, thinking maybe I'd select it next. Inside, there's a letter. In a sealed envelope. Partially addressed to you, with name and address, but not your city, state, or zip. Of course, I'm curious as to what I would have been intending to mail you back in late 2007 or thereabouts. I opened the envelope and here's what I found:

A picture that Darius colored for you, and he wrote your name in his crazy 4 year old hand-writing. It's so adorable...and yet, it's been lost in a book for the past 3 years. That's terrible! I can't believe I never mailed it. But now, thanks to the TBR pile challenge, you can see the adorable goodness.

You might be wondering how Oracle Bones came to be on my bookshelf. As you know, my favorite magazine is The New Yorker, but it's almost impossible to read every article. What a daunting prospect! I've learned to always take a copy with me when I know I'm going to be stuck somewhere for a while (this is before the advent of the smart phone, of course!). Then I'd find time to read the articles I only gave a cursory glance when I first flipped through it to read the cartoons ;-) When we lived in Oakland, I always--always--brought a copy with my to the laundromat.

One day, waiting for the laundry to finish, I ended up reading an article about China by a guy named Peter Hessler. Believe it or not, I can't remember now the exact article that I read on that particular day. I think it might have been this one about a bridge between North Korea and China. I was so caught up with his writing that I bought his book River Town, about his experience with the Peace Corps in China. I loved this book (sadly, in one of many subsequent moves, I also lost this book. I constantly think about replacing it).

I continued to read his articles in The New Yorker, and bought his next book Oracle Bones when it came out in 2007. This is a common thread among many of my TBR books: I loved a first book by an author, but for some reason never finished a subsequent title.

I'm looking forward to Oracle Bones. I'm still teaching Asia, so I'm hoping the fact that it's immediately topical will help get me started.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Completed: The Namesake

This morning at the middle school read in, I finished the last 20 pages The Namesake. I'm feeling pretty good about getting that first book out of the way.

I liked this book a lot. As I predicted, Gogol grew up quickly and became the main focus of the book. He was an interesting character to watch "grow up" in the book---going from little boy, to Yale student, to young architect, to grieving son, and to divorced man. I defy anyone to not relate to him and the way he changes in the book. He seems to perfectly encapsulate the arc that everyone goes through on the way from childhood to adulthood.

I mentioned in my first post that several of my coworkers had recommended the book. I was lucky enough this afternoon to talk it through with them again. One especially poignant piece that we all mentioned is Gogol's struggle with living a life that pleases him versus living a life that pleases his parents. In some ways, Gogol is successful. He changes his name, becomes an architect, and builds a life for himself in another city. In other way, Gogol fails. He marries the wrong woman, at least partly because she's Bengali and he knows his mother would approve. It's hard to let go of those parental expectations, and it seems particularly difficult with the added cultural expectations.

(An aside: I'm not surprised that our conversation focused around the parent-child relationship. It seemed our whole office was caught up all week in discussing Amy Chua's article about parenting. Have you read that? No matter what else we discussed, sooner or later it came back to Chinese mothers.)

I liked the way the author portrays the assimilation of the mother, Ashima. When Gogol and his sister were children and young adults, it seemed to them that their parents had never assimilated quite enough. He's vaguely embarrassed by the way they cling to their Bengali ways. But by the end, Gogol is aware that that all the American ways they embraced were done to benefit him and the sister: the Christmas tree and parties were for the children. He's able, finally, to admire how skillfully his parents balanced their Bengali heritage with their American home.

I loved the story. I loved the characters. And yet...the author makes a stylistic choice that I started to really notice about midway through the book. When Gogol's father died suddenly, I found myself feeling...well...unmoved. In other books, I'd weep like a baby when a character died. In The Namesake, I didn't feel that same connection to the characters. There's something about the narration that kept me at a distance. I decided that Lahiri is doing it on purpose. I think she was trying to reinforce how emotionally distant the characters are from each other. In that sense, it's successful because it helped me understand them as people. But as a reader, there were times I just wanted something more.

Perfect example of this is Gogol's experiences with infidelity. He has an affair with a married woman:
When they are together, he is ravenous; it has been a long time since he's made love. And yet he never thinks about seeing her at any other time...Only twice a week, the nights the review class meets, does he look forward to her company. They do not have each other's phone numbers. He does not know exactly where she lives...He likes the limitations. He has never been in a situation with a woman in which so little of him is involved, so little expected" (191).

Compare the above to when he discovers his wife's affair:
"Who's Dimitri?" he'd asked. And then: "Are you having an affair?" The question had sprung out of him, something he had not consciously put together in his mind until that moment. It felt almost comic to him, burning in his throat. But as soon as he asked it, he knew. He felt the chill of her secrecy, numbing him, like a poison spreading quickly through his veins" (282).

Somehow the language is so measured and calm. Even the "poison in his veins" reads more like a cliche, what you'd think to say, of how you think you're supposed to feel rather than the true description of his feelings. I don't know how else to describe it. The characters are so careful about holding their emotions in check. I think the narration masterfully captures that sense of Gogol and his family moving through the universe trying as hard as they can to avoid the big, dramatic emotional excesses of America.

I hope that doesn't sound too negative. Ultimately, I really enjoyed it. Gogol finally seems comfortable with who he really is, of the connection he has to his family, and the gifts that his parents labored so hard to give them.

That's it for The Namesake. Time to look at the rest of my list and see what's next. Have you made any progress?


PS Apparently there's a movie of The Namesake! However, my friend Shahana (who was kind enough to explain the difference between Bengali and Bangladeshi) says that everyone in her family hated the movie because none of the characters are played by Bengalis!

Monday, January 10, 2011

In Progress: The Namesake

Sigh. I had a pretty awful weekend of book reading. I burned through my 8 YA novels, but it really started to wear on me. Even though the books were all pretty decent, something about reading for work vs. reading for *me* made me feel exhausted and more than a little cranky.

I read The Namesake a little last night. I just wanted to make some progress. There's nothing worse than a New Year's resolution that's unresolved.

Either way, here's what's happening in The Namesake. The novel starts with the introduction of a Bengali couple, Ashimi and Ashoke Ganguli. Ashimi goes into labor, and this being 1968, her husband rushes her to the hospital and is promptly shunned from the birth-givin' facilities. I don't know if this is compelling to anyone else, but since I remember all too well the night Darrell rushed me to the hospital to give birth, I found the whole beginning interesting and engaging. The frightening endeavor of giving birth for the first time! And to be all alone and away from your family when it happens! Ashimi is horrified, and feels sorry for her son that he's been born in such a lonely way.

I need to feel connected to the characters in the books I read. Otherwise, I just don't enjoy them very much. I sympathized with Ashimi as she struggles with being a young mother, even though there are ways in which I felt very different. For example, I remember being pretty happy that I didn't have to deal with anyone else in my family when I gave birth! Never have I felt so American. I love my mother---but I'd have been pretty horrified to have her around when I had the baby. (Note to self: probably best not to share this blog with Mom.)

Anyways, the baby is born and because they don't have his formal name, they're forced to put his pet/family name, Gogol, on the birth certificate. I'm lucky enough to have some Bengali friends (Hi Dipankar & Kelly!) who had explained the importance of naming to me before, and so all of this was easy for me to understand.

I'm loving the writing and the story of the Ganguli family. I've finished about 5 chapters and might just sit down and read a little more tonight. The book shows Gogol growing up pretty quickly and he's ambivalent about the world knowing his family name. Right now, he's still a young boy, but I speculate he'll be a teenager before long. I'm not sure how I feel about this. I like his parents as characters and I don't want them to fall by the wayside.

Making any progress on your first choice?

PS Remember when I said that this copy of The Namesake might actually be yours? Um, here's visual confirmation of that. Let me know if you want this back when I finish!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Jenny's Book 1: The Namesake

Dear Kelly,

I've decided to start with Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. To be honest, I'm not even sure it qualifies in some ways, because it had fallen so far off the TBR pile that I had completely forgotten about it. But yesterday as I was sitting at my desk talking about New Year's reading resolutions, my friend Beth mentioned how much she loved The Namesake. When I came home to look at my bookshelves for contender books, I realized that I owned a copy of the book (actually, I'm fairly certain that the actual book might be yours). What serendipity!

Then, last night on the phone, you mentioned loving the book and today at lunch, my coworkers, Tom and Jeff, also sung its praises. Any book that's such a crowd-pleaser seems like a good starting point. And even though I have some non-fiction on my list, I think starting with a novel is a better idea.

There's one last appealing factor, which is that it aligns nicely with what I'm currently covering in my English classes. Right now my students are learning about Asia in their social studies class, and reading a variety of stories set in Asia or featuring Asian-Americans. I like the idea of reading something that is similar to what I'm teaching. Of course, the other big reading task for my upcoming weekend: reading the 8 different YA novels about Asian immigrants to America that I'm planning to booktalk for literature circles...on Monday! Lots to do this weekend, but I'm hoping to get started on The Namesake before the weekend's over.


Kelly's Book 1: The Richest Man in Babylon

Dear Jenny,

The biggest challenge for me is that these are all paper books on my actual bookshelves -- I have been reading only e-books since you, yourself, made a convert out of me in May 2009. The books I grabbed for this challenge had a thick layer of dust on them and cracking them open is going to be... interesting.

So what are you going to start with? I am going to go for The Richest Man in Babylon. One, because it is the shortest and two, because I suspect it may also be the most useful.

Interesting side note: I've owned this book for over 20 years. Wow. That's a lot of traveling for a slim book to never be read. It was recommended to me in high school by one of my favorite teachers, a guy you also know: Michael Pollack. He swore by its sound financial advice.

Probably should have read it back then when I was young and still impressionable, but hey! It's never too late to learn, right?

So what's your first book?


Our books for 2011

Here we go! These are the books that Jenny and Kelly will be reading in 2011...

Here is a screen cap of the books Jenny has chosen:

(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (Completed 2/11/11)
  2. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (completed 9/17/11)
  3. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
  4. Love by Toni Morrison (completed 10/1/11)
  5. The March by E. L. Doctorow
  6. The Namesakeby Jhumpa Lahiri (Completed 1/14/11)
  7. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon (completed 4/23/11)
  8. Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (Completed 2/5/11)
  9. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (Completed 7/12/11)
  10. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (completed 12/26/11)
  11. Seeing by José Saramago (completed 10/29/11)
  12. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (Completed 5/21/11)
  13. Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt (Completed 11/24/11)
  14. The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva (Completed 6/25/11)
And here are the books Kelly has chosen:

(click to see that bigger)In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. Ascending Peculiarity by Edward Gorey (Completed 12/13/11)
  2. The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal (Completed 11/22/11)
  3. Double Fold by Nicholson Baker
  4. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow (Completed 8/15/11)
  5. The Firemaster's Mistress by Christie Dickason (Completed 6/17/11)
  6. Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund
  7. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (Completed 12/28/11)
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (Completed 04/22/11)
  9. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Completed 8/13/11)
  10. The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason (Completed 1/28/11)
  11. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (Completed 3/25/11)
  12. The Sea-Wolf by Jack London (Completed 9/30/11)
  13. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (Completed 2/27/11)
  14. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Completed 5/22/11)
We each have 14 books on our shelves -- 12 months, plus two alternatives, just in case we cannot bear to get through a couple of them. We will then write about them on this here blog.

This challenge is inspired by the 2011 TBR Pile Challenge at Roof Beam Reader -- thanks for lighting a fire under our butts.

Let's get readin'!

(Screen shots from shelfari, which apparently feels a great need to indicate which books are "NEW" to your shelf. O-kay.)