Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Summer readin’, had me a blaaaast…

Only a few more hours before my summer ‘vacation’ officially comes to an end, so I thought I’d let you know a bit more about what has occupied my free time these last six weeks: books. Between recommendations from friends and my compulsive Amazon-browsing (check out my wish-list!), I managed to consume the following in record time:

  1. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. I’d been meaning to read this book since chancing upon an excerpt as part of the required reading for my ‘Happiness’ course senior year; I even bought it for a friend (Ms.Insulin) before I read it, knowing it would be a fantastic read – and it didn’t disappoint. Bourdain’s written voice sounds loud in this text: reading the book is like holding his hand while he spins you around his chaotic world, all the while whispering disgusting truths about the dirt under the not-so-metaphorical kitchen sink.
  2. Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture by Mario Salvadori. I picked up this book on a whim, while browsing the library shelves. While the author does editorialize a bit too much, going on about the importance of the ‘Architect’ and ‘Engineer’, it was a worthwhile read, if only to introduce me to some principles of building I’m sure to encounter in this year’s Structures class. It makes understanding loads relatively easy…though I might suggest revising his shear diagrams and perhaps updating the text to incorporate newer structural ‘marvels,’ like the Burj Dubai.
  3. The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right,  Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin. Without a doubt my favorite read of the summer, and not only because I saw myself in the author’s shoes, albeit a few years younger and without a law degree (though my parents might suggest that my propensity to argue ought to’ve led to the former instead of the architectural studies that await me). As we drove up to New Haven, Rubin reminded me of the things I’d learned in Paris – to lighten up, to read what I want (be it kidlit or books on medical anomalies), to take a chance on doing something new (bikram yoga?), among other things. I’m going to buy this book and keep it on my shelf, for those times when studio gets between me and life, and Ms.Insulin isn’t there to set me straight.
  4. Unclutter Your Life in One Week by Erin Rooney Doland. A quick read, if you go straight through, and a good guide, if you take your time to apply the principles Doland proposes. I didn’t have a desk to unclutter, but her tips on keeping travel-sized shampoos for guests and having groceries delivered are jotted down in my iPhone.
  5. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert. Recommended by Poohbear, I was a bit skeptical of this read because I’m no where close to being married, and a bit wary of my friends who have, and certainly did not want convincing otherwise. I was happily surprised. If you disregard the cheesy ending, the book is an interesting sociological/anthropological survey of marriage in Eastern and Western cultures. My most interesting take-away: why do we, in the Western world, place such a burden on our significant others, by first giving them that title, and then expecting them to be not only our best friend, but our perfect lover, business partner and child-rearing teammate, when the East acknowledges that it takes a village to not only raise a child, but sustain a union?
  6. The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home by Pico Iyer. I will admit it now: I did not finish this book. Gretchen Rubin tells me I will be okay. I tried, I really did, but after a while, Iyer’s excessive descriptions of chaos and the alienating feeling of being country-less, well, alienated me as a reader. As a literary proposition, the book’s writing style matches the author’s intent: to convey the disorder that results in a too-global community, the loss of identity in the vagrant soul comes through every brand-laden shopping experience and self-defining national experiment. So, a success?
  7. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I read this tome in one day, Scout’s honor. I did nothing else that day, but I finished it all in one go. Set in a universe somewhere between Tolkein and Rowling, the story is compelling in spite of its first-person narrative (something I’ve never been fond of), and I’m looking forward to hearing what happens next in this series. Gripes? A first novel, sure, but Rothfuss tries a bit too hard to create a unique universe. His invented language and sometimes over-capitalization (referring to the local university as the  University reads like a fan-fiction writer’s habit) took away from the archetypal story of a young boy who overcomes personal tragedy to harness his God-given talents.
  8. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. I’m right-smack-dab in the middle of this one, and Bryson is as good as ever. I probably look like a fool, because I can’t help but whisper this book to myself, checking Bryson’s citations of differences in Northern and Southern pronunciation for myself. At this point, I can’t say what kind of American accent I have, only that I certainly have an American accent.

With the exception of The Mother Tongue, which I purchased because it was on sale for only $7 (an unbelievable price for a hardback book), the rest of these literary adventures would not have been possible without the generosity of my local library – nothing like reading to your heart’s content without a paying a penny for that pleasure! Unless you’re me, and want to hold on to the books for far longer than the library intended…oops.

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The Gladwellian Trilogy

No, this is not a proposed script for The Big Bang Theory. It’s actually a book review.  Technically, a series of book reviews.  Three book reviews, to be precise.

It started with an evening  in a small Starbucks in DC’s Chinatown.  I was visiting a few architecture classmates (and a journalist) and as we huddled together in a booth by the window, hoping the hot chocolate would fend off the December chill, the conversation turned to Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers, and whether or not architecture, or any profession, was something for which an individual could display a talent at a young age.  We were swapping stories of our first memories of design, or what drew us to the field, and realized that we all had a very diverse range of interests in our youth – any of which could have become “the right profession” for us to pursue.  That is, in retrospect it is easy to say that architecture is the field for which I’m destined, but it’s really quite circumstantial. I could just as easily have been destined to become a concert pianist, had my parents enlisted me in lessons a few years earlier (or had I chosen to practice more!).

As I wandered the library a few weeks ago, that conversation popped into my mind and wouldn’t go away.  So I abandoned my reading list for a while and have consumed not one, but all three of his books in the last two weeks.

While Gladwell presents several interesting anecdotes and propositions, I was more struck by the similarities between the books – the norms, rather than the outliers, as it were.  Here are three things, both good and bad, that I felt the books had in common.

  1. Subjects. After reading Sway, I became quite fascinated by writings on psychology and sociology, and Gladwell was able to both quench my thirst and pique further interest.  The three books, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, all address various facets of human behavior, from the subconcious instant-decision-making mechanisms with which we are all equipped to the way being part of a group changes our willingness to act.  What makes it interesting, of course, is that while these topics have obviously been studied before (Gladwell cites primary sources throughout his texts), the general public wouldn’t have been exposed to them – unless you’ve been reading Psychology Today on a regular basis.
  2. Accessibility. More than the fact that writing about these topics makes them available for general consumption, the way in which Gladwell addresses these subjects makes them accessible to just about anyone.  He uses advanced vocabulary, sure – I even found a couple of GRE words as I was perusing the texts – but he presents the research without too much jargon.  In fact, he’s quite successful at introducing a vocabulary of his own (“connectors, mavens and salesmen” in The Tipping Point, for example) without becoming Heideggerian.  And by stating his sources in his books, he allows those readers interested in pursuing the topics further the opportunity to consult the primary texts.
  3. Rhetoric and summary.  The opposite side of Gladwell’s “accessible writing style” coin is that he can seem a bit condescending.  By beginning every chapter with a summary of the previous section, followed by a leading question that he then proceeds to answer, I felt like a child being led by the hand through the discoveries Gladwell made during his research.  Okay, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of using the rhetorical question in my research writing as well, but a rhetorical question every few pages (for 900+ pages!) is quite a bit.  And, really, I’ve been reading the book – I know what you just said – stop treating me like a third grader.  If I wanted a pop quiz on the book’s plot every chapter, I’d take the Accelerated Reader test!

As for the books themselves – I think I enjoyed Blink the most, as it addressed both the pros and cons to subconscious snap-judgements in a variety of settings without loitering too long around a particular example.  Both The Tipping Point and Outliers got a bit redundant after a while. Gladwell provides plenty of case studies in the latter, for example, but after a while his presentation gets boring: tell me the “success by hardwork” story for Person X, followed by the “what really happened” story that relates Person X’s success to the circumstances surrounding their upbringing.

To be honest, while I enjoyed the books for their content, I think the authors of Sway were able to present similar research in a more compelling, engaging manner. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I suggest you read that one first – and then Gladwell’s trilogy if you’ve got time.

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Breaking News: 42 is NOT the answer.

The Real Pursuit of Happiness

The Real Pursuit of Happiness

The answer is…happiness. Or at least, that’s what I gather from reading The Alchemist.  If you recall, this was one of the books on my Summer Reading List.  It’s the second book I’ve read on that list, which means I’m not exactly going in order, but never fear, by the time I leave for France I’m sure to have finished them all.

This book was added to the list for two reasons.  Reason the first: someone had mentioned it last semester, I can’t remember when, or where, or who, or why, but the title had been floating around my head for a while.

Reason the second: the Beau and I were looking for things to do and we decided to read a book together over summer. Coincidentally, one of his friends had mentioned this book and so we thought we’d give it a go. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if he and I weren’t reading it together – there were plenty of other books that I had already purchased, waiting on my shelf, but I’m glad we picked this one because has it led to some of the best conversations I’ve had in a while.

You should know, before I go any further, that while reading this book I was also reading The 4-Hour Workweek. These two books might seem dissimilar at first, but I found myself nodding in agreement to points made in both books.  Reading one book influenced my perceptions of the other, certainly, but I believe that the two have a fundamental commonality: they want the reader to really, seriously consider the choices the have made and continue to make, the reasons for these choices and whether or not their choices bring them happiness.  Not contentment, but happiness.

Contentment is laziness.  It is a passive status that is nothing but a muted substitute for real happiness.  At the end of my edition of The Alchemist, an interview with the author shares his thoughts on living in stagnancy.  He says:

Once someone asked me, “What do you want to be your epitaph?” [on your tombstone].  So I said, “Paul Coelho died while he was alive.”  The person said, “Why this epitaph? Everybody dies when he or she is alive.”  I said, “No, this is not true.” The same pattern repeating and over again, you are not alive anymore.

To die alive is to take risks.  To pay your price.  To do something that sometimes scares you but you should do because you may like or may not like.

To live, then, is to actively pursue Something.  I believe that happiness is this Something we all want to pursue, but we are reluctant to take the risks Coelho cites, since contentment is an easier (albeit paler) achievement.

In The 4-Hour Workweek, a book seemingly about get-rich-quick schemes, Ferriss recognizes that while money is important, it is only important in that it allows you to spend your time in the pursuit of happiness.  That is, money itself will not make you happy, but having money can allow you to pursue that which will make you happy, or at the very least, make it easier to pursue that happiness.  Even Santiago had to recover the gold stolen from him in order to make it to the pyramids and achieve his Personal Legend.

Which brings me to the biggest question the two books ask: what will make you  happy?  What is your Personal Legend? Another blogger has written an interesting post on the role of the Personal Legend in the book and in her own life.  In reading The Alchemist, it’s impossible not to think of your own history, to search out any Kings of Salem you may have met, any magical stones you might have overlooked.  I spent a great portion of my junior year as an undergraduate questioning whether I was in the right field, pursuing the right goals, whether architecture would make me happy.

It’s not as though any lightbulbs illuminated above my head after reading these two books, but an affirmation of my current position in life and the routes I was pursuing slowly crept over me.  I used to worry that the goals I was setting up for myself were not my goals at all, but were aspirations impressed upon me by society and my own stubbornness to not veer from a path once it was selected.  I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was 13 – how could I have possibly known that’s the route that would make me happy?  And then I realized, having been on the path for eight years, not once has it made me unhappy.  I am never complacent, because architecture places continually places challenges in front of me.  In that way, I am never content, but forever in the pursuit of happiness.  Every moment is an opportunity to make a choice, to decide to take the risks that will get me through my Personal Legend.

And most importantly, I’ve realized that the path of a Personal Legend is never straight.  It is not the prescribed life: no white picket fence and 2.5 kids for me.  Taking risks: exploring Europe by myself for three weeks, transplanting myself to another country for seven months, eating my own cooking.  A meandering path that will lead me to those people meant to help me on my way.  I have only to recognize them when we meet.

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Spontaneous wanderlustion*, or, these boots were made for walking.

I’ve been weeding through old magazines and stumbled upon this article in the January 2009 issue of O. As I read the piece I had a moment of déjà vu, as I was struck, once again, with a strong desire to move, to get out, to feel this freedom that Hutton found in Paris. When I first read the piece almost six months ago, it had been six months since my last journey, a three-week solo expedition to Europe. Now, almost a year later, my feet are itching to get on the road, my taste buds craving a the crackly crust and gooey filling of pain au chocolat, my neck craving the crick you can only get after spending your time watching movies on an impossibly positioned screen during a six-hour flight (okay, maybe not that last one).

I felt a certain kind of peace in these craggy trees mounted with battered road signs directing wanderers further into nowhere.

I felt a certain kind of peace in these spindly trees mounted with battered road signs directing wanderers further into nowhere. (Fontainebleau, France)

Is this wanderlust something that strikes every twenty-something?  Or perhaps every twenty-something of my generation? It hasn’t struck my brother: he’d much rather be indoors playing Rock Band (a wonderful game that even I, a techno-failure, can enjoy) than gallivanting off for a quick tour of the Netherlands.  Am I predisposed, then, in some way, to this condition?  My aunt and uncle have been travelers their whole lives, and I recall even as a child being in awe of the photographs my uncle projected onto the white screen set up in my grandmother’s apartment in Bombay.  There must be something of a traveler-gene, not so much a bug, that managed to skip sideways a generation: my parents don’t seem as infatuated with wandering as I am, either.

What I admired particularly about Hutton’s tale is its spontaneity.  I’m a spontaneous person…when not dealing with a shrinking bank account, rising gas prices and my parents’ roof over my head.  There’s a fine line between a life of spontaneity and a weekend of financial suicide (I don’t, for example, have $7000 to blow on a $2000 per night room at the Ritz in Paris).  Eco-friendly travel ought to stand for economy-friendly travel. Yeah, sure, I want to help the earth – but I could use some tips on how to do it while traveling cheaply!

For the time being, I suppose I’ll have to console myself by remembering meandering through Paris’ City of the Dead and dancing on houseboats until 3AM in Lyon…and maybe taking a quick hop skip and jump to Roanoke.

* That was supposed to be a little play on spontaneous combustion. It clearly failed.

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Bryson’s Britain – brilliant, by and by

The cover of my edition of Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

If the cover doesn't lure you in, the prose is bound to hook you, eventually.

I’m about half way through Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, book number one on my summer reading list, and, having purchased it for two reasons, it seems to have lived up to both, somewhat.

Reason one for the purchase: reviews of my first Stephen Clarke novel said he was Britain’s very own Bill Bryson. Now, I really enjoyed Clarke’s A Year in the Merde, perhaps because I was just ending my sixth week of vacationing in France as I started the novel and could sympathize quite readily with its protagonist (well, minus the bit about snagging a French mistress).  It seemed, then, that if Clarke was held in such esteem as this Bill Bryson character, then Bryson’s work ought to be spectacular.

The second reason explains why I chose Notes from a Small Island, as opposed to the more American Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods.  I’m going to be visiting the titular island in a few months, since it’s only a hop skip and a jump from Gaul, and I believe I have a standing invitation for a personal tour of London-town.  So it’s only right of me to try and understand the British before I pay them a visit.

What I am finding, in fact, is that I’m coming to understand Americans much more than the British Bryson is purportedly writing about – it reminds me of my last two trips to Europe, where I came back with a much better understanding of America, and still somewhat confused about the French.  Bryson’s book is a testament to learning through comparison, as every tidbit of British trivia arrives through American eyes.  Whether it’s finding the grass at Versailles to actually be much greener, or suffering a bout of homesickness wishing for buffalo wings and cheddar cheese (how the French can ever make a taco without cheddar still apalls me), I think I get what Bryson’s saying: [Insert country here] is great, so long as you’ve got some place else to compare it to.

As for Bryson’s book itself: the writing is witty, the plot somewhat tedious.  I get it – it’s rainy on that small island.  So you spent a couple of days (ok, most of your trip) rather wet.  Luckily Bryson limits weatherly descriptions to a paragraph per chapter (two paragraphs, max), and fills the majority of his book with quirky stories ranging from the Duke of Marlborough’s magical toothbrush to the (fake) authentic Roman ruins hidden under tarp and brush.

One complaint might be that the book dates itself: way back in 1995, Bryson began complaining about Cellphone Man, and his incessant rambling on the machine attached to his ear.  Bryson goes further to compare his current journey to the first visit he paid to each of these places, sometime in the 1970s, while dreading the impact of the presence of Korean companies in the UK in the distant future of 2010.

I want to know: does Milton Keynes still have deserted pedestrian pathways that meander about and an incredibly confusing street grid?  Must I still confirm thrice that I am, in fact, on a train to Barnstaple?  Will I still be showered with advice on how I ought to have left yesterday to get from Surrey to Cornwall?

A contemporary source confirms, yes, yes and yes.

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The (not-so-dreaded) Summer Reading List

Remember when, at the end of the semester, just as everything was wrapping up and you were getting excited about the summer, the intimidating figure of the following year’s English teacher would appear in the doorway?  And suddenly, instead of thinking about how awesome it was going to be to just hang out by the pool, or go on that trip to Busch  Gardens, you began to dread having to make it through the Summer Reading List.

I was never that kid.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I looked forward to the summer reading, and yes, even the summer journals.  I might have even, on occasion, asked for the reading list (which usually reminded the teacher that it needed handing out, which then meant getting shunned by the rest of the class…which then meant I had more time to do summer reading, since no one wanted to go to the pool with me after that ordeal).  Which means that even as a graduate, I haven’t learned not to go seeking trouble, as I’m making my own reading list for the summer.

It’s got a little bit of this and a little bit of that: some leisurely works, some “must reads” and some texts cluttered with jargon.  But they’re all books I’ve been meaning to read for some while now, and when better than during a tortoise-paced economy?

Summer 2009, here I come:

  1. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  2. A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow)
  3. Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French by Stephen Clarke
  4. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  5. The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch
  6. Strange Details (Writing Architecture) by Michael Caldwell

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