Summer daze

Uglies
by Scott Westerfield

It was during a classroom discussion of Fahrenheit 451 that one of my students said, “This is just like the Uglies.” What followed was a rather confusing rush of plot tidbits from two or three of the girls. I’m not sure the novel even sounded interesting to me at that point, but I made the promise to read it this summer–just as I did last summer with Twilight.

Uglies is a dystopian young adult novel (a kind of Giver for teens) about a world divided into groups based on looks and age: littlies, uglies, new-Pretties, mid-Pretties, and finally, Crumblies. At age sixteen everyone undergoes an operation to become a Pretty–bones are lengthened or shortened, skin removed, iris’ implanted, cheekbones sculpted, eyes widened. Pretties are then segregated into Pretty Town where they party wildly and indulge their passions.

As the story opens, Tally Youngblood is lonely, having lost her best friend Peris a few months before when he “turned”. Once prettified, Pretties no longer associate with Uglies. Then Tally meets Shay and the two Uglies become fast friends. Shay, however, has plans to escape her turning–she claims not to want the operation–and has made a few inroads with runaways who live in the Smoke. While Tally tries to convince Shay not to run, Shay is true to her word and disappears only days before her turning. Though saddened at the loss of yet another friend, Tally is still eager for her own operation.

Special Operations, however, has other plans. Tally is blackmailed into leading the authorities to Shay and the Smoke–her refusal would mean she would stay ugly forever. Tally eventually makes her way to Shay and is intrigued by life in the secret settlement. In the Smoke she reads magazines in the library and sees that hundreds of years in the past everyone was ugly–weight, height, eye and skin color all differed from person t0 person. Tally finds satisfaction in the Smoke, and falls in love with David, an ugly who has never lived in a city. A twist of fate brings down the Smoke and the rest of the book sees Tally trying to free those captured by Special Operations (such a blatant pun!)–and in the process Tally discovers the awful secret David’s parents had uncovered.

[spoiler alert]

Westerfield attacks our preoccupation with outer beauty and touches on the idea of lookism. Teens who are bombarded (and often overwhelmed) by media and social pressure to measure up to a certain standard of beauty will find the novel compelling. And while I rarely read the second volume of these teen trilogies, I found myself wondering … what will happen to Tally after her operation? Will she remember the promise she made to find a cure …

… to be continued?! Whatever the case, on a cloudy summer afternoon I was pleased to find myself in that reading fog that only comes from reading for hours and hours–oblivious to the demands of the everyday. It is truly summer.

Chicks on Books

The first ever meeting of the Chicks on Books book club met today at M’s! A great group with strong opinions and never at a loss for words–what could be better?!(In fact, how does one know if the discussion is too animated?) I am looking forward to the summer books we’ll read … and also a bit surprised that the initial books, anyway, are non-fiction. Who knew? Always an avid reader, I’ve only just started reading non-fiction myself in the past several years–really with the advent of my AP class. I would have thought that the bent would have gone towards fiction, my all-time favorite get-away.

We’ve checked off The Glass Castle today. July’s read will be Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Janzen; August will see us reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. Can’t wait!

Mindfulness

Savor
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Having read Living Buddha, Living Christ and skimmed Hanh’s Meditations on Mindfulness, I was pleasantly surprised by the time I finished Savor, co-written with Dr. Lilian Cheung. The practice of yoga first introduced me to the idea of living in the moment several years ago, and Thich Nhat Hanh writes compellingly about the practice. Yet I had always thought of mindfulness as a spiritual practice–a means to deepen my relationship with self, others, and the Divine.

The opening chapters of Savor were a primer on the practice of mindfulness, and I so skimmed much of them. Then followed some information about the necessity of healthful eating and exercise for weight reduction–and anyone who has gone through years of Weight Watchers as I have knows the score on that front. So it is probably safe to say that for the book’s first half I was a bit disappointed.

Until, that is, I came to Hanh’s idea of habit energy–the idea that many of our harmful eating patterns are no more than a habit, and that habit exerts an energy that often governs our behavior. The way around the habit energy of poor eating are the Seven Practices of a Mindful Eater. Now this was a little more food for thought (pun intended): honor the food, engage all six senses, serve in modest portions, savor small bites, eat slowly, don’t skip meals, and eat a plant-based diet. Pretty basic, but at least a fresh look at what I already should know. And since we’re finally entering the summer season, the idea of honoring food when I shop at the farmer’s market is easy, as is engaging all senses.

But it was the Mindful Living Plan that more fully incorporated the idea of mindfulness and made the practice … well, practical (would you believe I just now noted the root of the two words is the same?)! Hanh’s plan is composed of three components: InEating, InMoving, and InBreathing. Each of these practices incorporates the mindfulness breathing technique–“I breathe in … I breathe out …” InMoving has me walking mindfully, becoming aware of my feet and focusing on their contact with the ground–walking in the moment, no “to-do list” racing through my head. InBreathing is given the most consideration, with breathing meditations for everything from teeth brushing to emailing to traffic jams. The thought of applying mindfulness to brushing my teeth seemed both ridiculous … and sublime. Of course this is mindfulness, and at its purest.

In the end, I would recommend Savor to anyone who wants to deal with poor eating and exercise habits in a more holistic manner. Those who are familiar with the practice of mindfulness can skim through the first half of the book; those who are new to the idea will find it easy to understand and accessible.

A twenty-four hour read–


Servants’ Quarters
by Lynn Freed

It has been at least a year or longer since I’ve been compelled to read straight through a book, taking time only to eat, sleep, walk the dogs, and keep the house running. Lynn Freed transported me completely into a world I’ve read about, but only rarely. The voices of Penelope Lively, Dickens, and perhaps even the Brontes whispered around the edges of this story and I was sorry to have it end so soon at only 212 pages.

Cressida lives in Africa amongst an odd assortment of characters. Several years after The War, its horror still visits her Jewish family. Older sister Miranda screams in night terrors, father lies comatose in the back bedroom, and eccentric (or insane?) Aunt Bunch demands constant watching. But it is Cressida’s neighbor who is at once both the most compelling and the most repellent of them all. Mr.Harding, wounded when his plane was shot down over Germany, bears the visible scars of war time–horribly disfigured in the crash, he wears a veil over his panama hat to hide his hideously burned face.

The back story of the events that carry Cressida throughout the novel is complex–sex, money, power, and jealousy compound life at every turn–and Freed only reveals that story a drip or drop at a time. Mr. Hardy, lord of the Big House, watches Cressida from infancy and sees in her a soul that doesn’t belong to the world she inhabits. Here Freed begins to parallel Great Expectations, a conceit that is difficult to ignore once the two stories are connected. Cressida and her family come to live in Harding’s servants’ quarters and it is here that he begins to influence the course of her life. Cressida, herself longing for something more, abides by Mr. Hardy’s rules and rises to his expectations as she grows. Unlike Pip’s, however, the family Cressida must reject is worthy of no nostalgia–crass and common, the reader is relieved whenever Cressida separates herself from them.

Jane Eyre‘s shadow hovers over the novel’s love story–but this element of the novel was still a surprise to me. Poignant, offensive, and touching, I was willing to allow their love to unfold without judgment. If I had any complaint, it would be that Freed chose the easiest way out and relied on a Coda to finish Cressida’s story. In a novel this complex, it seemed too pat an answer.

But it could be that Coda was where Mr. Harding had been leading Cressida all along.

Me, too–me, too!

Knit Two
by Kate Jacobs

Another round of Friday Night Knitting Club and I’m buying it all the way. Take up knitting? Me, too! Bake some muffins? Me, too! Go to Rome? Me, too! Open a bakery? Me, too! Live in New York? Me, too! Kate Jacobs strength is not necessarily in fine writing–but in making her readers care about her characters. I want to be part of their world … and so I power-read through Knit Two, happy all the way.

Several years after the death of Georgia, Dakota has finished a year of college, teetering on the edge of adulthood. The rest of the ladies have moved on–Darwin has twins, Lucie struggles with single parenthood, Anita anticipates marriage to Marty, Peri runs the shop. It is perhaps Catherine who transforms herself the most–going from self-absorbed socialite to a woman who gives up the mask she’s worn, finding, at long last, who she wanted to become.

Improbably, half the club find themselves in Italy for the summer. Dakota accompanies Lucie to nanny, James tags along to watch over Dakota, Anita searches for her long-lost sister, and Catherine goes … just because she can, I think! Nowhere but in a novel would such circumstances evolve–but somehow, it doesn’t seem far-fetched. Jacobs touches on some big issues–single-parenting, aging parents–and knits each situation up neatly with no raveled edges. Certainly not very much like life, but satisfying enough for a spring weekend. In fact, should there be a third Knitting Club novel … I’d very likely pick it up again and willingly let myself be transported to Walker and Daughter on the Upper West Side.