Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer

Every once in a while I come across a book that I don’t really want to read but feel like I should. Imagine falls into that category. My mother sent me her copy after she finished with it, and although she clearly thought it would be interesting to me, I think she might have been mistaking me for my husband.

You see, I’m what I would call “apologetically apathetic” to the breakdown of how things work. I want to care, I really do, but I get bored easily when someone actually bothers to explain. I vividly remember, about four years ago, walking down the street in Harlem with my best friend; she was horrified that I had only recently started at a job that offered a 401k, and that furthermore, I had no idea what that was or what I was supposed to do with it. The explanation that followed was excruciating – I ‘m not sure if the burning hairdryer smell was coming from her brain or mine – but it was the last time she tried to enlighten me about the importance of managing my portfolio.

Two years later, on a road trip across the country, I made the mistake of asking my husband to explain exactly what sort of coding he was doing at work before we left on our vacation. It was my own fault – I know that now – but I was honestly curious. Coding has always seemed like a particularly mysterious foreign language, and I wanted to understand how he used it. Unfortunately, the swaying of the car, the lack of caffeine, and my complete inability to turn auditory discussion into comprehensible ideas of my own led to about two hours of me fighting to keep my eyes open. I wasn’t bored; I just couldn’t focus on such abstract ideas.

I really do like to learn (I swear!) but I have a difficult time seeing the big picture, so when I picked up this book and realized that Lehrer had broken the eight elements of creativity into chapters of anecdotes, I was thrilled. I get stories. I can use concrete examples to extrapolate a larger idea, and in fact, that was the technique he used almost exclusively. He does a wonderful job of illustrating each of his concepts while covering topics as diverse as the invention of masking tape, the brilliance of Shakespeare, and the importance of urban development, all in his quest to unravel the mysteries of creativity.

It was a well-written and researched book that encouraged me to think of creativity as innovation rather than as a restrictive idea limited to artists. When I was talking to my friends about it this week, every single one of them told me, “Oh, I wouldn’t be interested – I’m not creative at all,” and to each of them I said, “you’re wrong…let this guy prove it to you.” Of course, the reason the book came up at all was because I was complaining about it.

The challenge for me was that, although it was a fascinating subject (and presented as well as I’ve ever seen) and I absorbed a lot of new information, it was difficult to make myself sit down and read more than a chapter at a time. I don’t know how to say that without making you think that the book isn’t worth reading, but I really don’t believe that to be true. I actually think this a great choice for a much larger audience than I usually appeal to (ie passionate but frustrated teenagers, older adults who feel stymied in their current profession, people who think they lack creativity just because their passion falls outside of traditional ideas of what that means – not to mention engineers, mathematicians, inventors, teachers, gardeners, athletes…basically, if you’re human and have a shred of curiosity…).

The failure is much more on my side than it is on Lehrer’s. One of the things I’m working on in these reviews is piquing my interest in a wider array of topics. When it comes to non-fiction especially, I have some major hurdles ahead of me. If only I could hold a book up to my forehead and absorb the information without reading a word (I would have so much more time for reading my literary bread and butter – the novel), but I can’t, and to avoid books just because my attention wanders when I try to read them is to sell both the author and myself short.

I think limiting myself would be a great failure on my part as a reader – it’s a failure that I know many of us struggle with. I would also say it’s one of the major factors in turning young people off from reading for the rest of their lives (which is why one of the tenets of my blog is from this quote by Maya Angelou, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.”) I am not a child anymore though, and my love of books is already firmly established, so I have no excuses to hide behind. The push beyond what is comfortable and well-loved will eventually lead to me finding more books to love. I have to believe this is true because the possibility that I’ve already discovered all I can get out of books…well, that’s just about the worst thing I can imagine.

To find out more about Jonah Lehrer, head over here.

Royal Street, Suzanne Johnson

Royal Street is the last of the books I read on my vacation (well, last to review, although it was the first I read, mostly curled up on the couch with my parents’ misbehaved but cuddly beagle), and I think it might have been my favorite. It was a recommendation from The Big Idea way back in April, and although the cover is embarrassingly awful in that way only under-appreciated urban fantasy novels can be, it was a wonderful story that blended the events of Hurricane Katrina with old-fashioned New Orleans voodoo and just the right amount of magic.

This is, I think, the third book about New Orleans I’ve read this year. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything about the city before, but each of the ones I’ve picked up have been intriguing. I’m mostly drawn to reading, from a variety of perspectives, about what it was like during the storm and just after, although the city is ultimately more famous for its peculiar brand of raucous southern charm. Having spent very little time in the south, and having never visited New Orleans specifically, I’ve been swept up by the love authors have for this city.

I’d really never given the place much thought, since I neither live close enough to visit nor do I have the inclination to fly across the country to see it, but it’s clear that the people who call it home have an understanding of the place that translates beautifully into compelling novels. Johnson, in particular, manages to combine a potent blend of mysticism, jazz, and the ruin of those days following the storm. I found myself drawn into the flooded streets, more curious than I ever have been before about the resiliency of the people who survived the devastation and the efforts of the city’s citizens to reclaim their homes with such poorly organized help from the nation.

It was especially wonderful to read her perspective on the few pockets of people able to return home immediately after Katrina, about how the culture of the city survived the demolition of so much of the physical property. It was easy to imagine walking down the deserted streets, only to pass the occasional open bar, strains of Zydeco or blues drifting out on the heavy air. There’s just something inherently magical about such a vibrant place being unexpectedly left empty; it’s impossible not to feel the pregnant pause of the moment when a whole city waits to see its future unfold. Johnson has managed to catch at that tipping point and wrap her whole fictional adventure around a single, deep inhalation of reality.

For more about Suzanne Johnson, go here.

Harper Connelly Mysteries (Books 1-4), Charlaine Harris

Although I won’t post this until Monday morning in deference to the schedule I like to adhere to, I’m writing it on Friday. It’s important that I mention that in this instance because although I finished the fourth one of these books last night and had already been considering what to write about, when I woke up at 5 this morning (thank you east coast jet lag), the very first thing I heard about when I checked the internet was the shooting in Colorado.  As of now, twelve people are dead and at least fifty have been treated for related injuries. The alleged shooter is in custody, and although I’m sure more details will leak out before this review goes up, I felt I have to look at in relation to this particular series of books.

Last night before bed, I performed a relaxation ritual that I often use when I’ve read or watched something that provokes a lot of anxiety when I try to fall asleep. This series of mysteries by Harris focuses on crimes against children, and I was especially struggling with some of the images invoked.  I lay and thought about the really horrible things that are going on right now all over the world (when I’m doing this exercise, I intentionally don’t censor myself – the point is to get all the ideas hiding at the corners of my mind out into the open), and after a few minutes, I forced myself to stop and consider all the wonderful people out there who are trying to counteract the horrors I had imagined. Finally, I reminded myself that it’s a balancing act, and the world will always have its share of light and darkness.

It worked well. I fell asleep quickly and I didn’t have any of the hyper-vivid nightmares that I usually do. Unfortunately, when I woke up, the balance had been tipped. I found myself remembering Columbine and the months afterward when school shootings were on the rise. I was a junior in high school then, and I still remember how afraid I was when I understood that people I considered my peers could be capable of such unexpected violence.

I was so angry then, and I am now, that the system fails as often as it does – that so many deeply troubled people fall through the cracks – and that the result is horrific violence. And I was amazed by how much thinking about that tied into my experience over the last week reading these books about a young woman who can find the dead. Harris creates a character who is likable, but deeply damaged,a woman who makes her living experiencing the last moments of the deceased, and who has to remove herself in large part from the outside world in order to remain sane.

Harper Connelly really isn’t the most pleasant character I’ve ever read, but I found myself drawn to her because for all her faults, she’s honest. Although she is far outside the normal flow of humanity, she manages to tether herself to the fringes by holding onto a certain bluntness, and a balanced view of what other people are capable of. She witnesses the worst last moments of any corpse she comes across (and if she’s to be believed, the dead are everywhere), yet she continues to work, to build relationships, and to hope that the law enforcement and victims’ families and clients who employ her will do their best to listen to voices of the dead and learn from them.

I could imagine that seeing the last few moments of a person’s death would be difficult, to say the least, but Harper handles it with only the idea that the dead want to be found, and heard, to comfort her. She doesn’t see who kills them. She can’t help them. She has no superpower beyond her own brain when it comes to solving a case. Most importantly, she has more reason than most to be filled with hatred and disgust toward humanity, but instead, she’s pragmatic about the terrible stories she discovers in many graves. It’s the balance she exhibits that draws me to her. In the face of tragedy, she moves mourning aside to make room for problem solving. She sees justice – true justice, not revenge or vigilante recklessness – as the best gift she can give to any of the bodies she finds.

As I struggle to make sense out of what happened this morning, I have to make myself remember that sense of equilibrium. I try to believe that one event doesn’t misalign the entire universe (although I have no doubt of the damage it has done to those involved), and that while I can’t stop the awful things happening around the world, I do have control over what I do in response. It serves as a reminder that I need to hold myself responsible for the way I behave toward others, that I need to practice compassion until I’m exhausted and then keep practicing it still, that I need to be thankful for all the people in Aurora who will reach out after this to help the families affected. I even have to remember the young man who caused all this pain and hope that this incident will encourage people to be more aware of how others around them might be struggling. Our attention and empathy are the first line of defense against situations like this one happening again.

As Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

For more information about Charlaine Harris, go here.

Team Human, Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

I’ve been back from vacation/visiting my family for a few days now, but I can’t quite accept my real life for what it is just yet. As I was flying home I thought to myself, “aren’t you lucky to have a life you love so much that coming back to it is less of a let down and more of a continuing stroke of luck?” And that is 110 percent true. I am a fortunate person indeed.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to get back to work after spending a long weekend at a friend’s lake house – a magical place where we wore the same clothes every day and didn’t bother to shower because a jump in the water was so much more refreshing. We gorged ourselves on blueberries and grilled meat and I don’t think I even knew where my shoes were until we were getting ready to leave. I read two books while I was there, and the only thing I had to do was how to play cribbage. It was about as perfect a summer weekend as I can imagine, and I have an excellent imagination.

Basically, I let myself go completely, and unlike when I went to Germany a few months back and was drawn to experience-expanding travel memoirs, this was an opportunity for a little guilty pleasure reading. Okay, so it was actually a lot of guilty pleasure reading, and if you’re not a fan of fantasy novels, well, I’m sorry, I really am, but my go-to genre for the ultimate relaxation is as far removed from reality as possible.

Team Human was the first book on my queue for this trip. It had been described (on Twitter, I think, although I can’t remember who mentioned it) as the anti-Twilight novel. Let me tell you upfront that’s a bit of an overstatement. In my opinion, Anne Rice’s books are what you should look into if you need relief from the vampires in Forks. I only made it through about a third of Interview with a Vampire in the seventh grade and am still having nightmares about how unsparkly those vampires were.

This book takes a more YA friendly approach to the idea of vampires and humans coexisting. The co-authors did an interesting job of taking a situation similar to the one presented in the Twilight books and tackling it from the perspective of the best friend of the girl who falls in love with a vampire. I actually felt myself getting choked up as Mel tries to keep her childhood friend Cathy from losing herself to a world the protagonist neither likes nor understands. I think the issues of prejudice, obsession, and guilt are well addressed, and although the style is a little rough (possibly the result of paired authoring – I’ve experienced a similar problem when working together on novels with other writers), the characters are deftly drawn and story is compelling.

I read a lot of novels, especially in this genre, that have female protagonists, and when I finish a book, I can’t help but wonder how a story like this one would affect a young female reader. Although I love tough as nails women, I tend to appreciate even more those who are written flaws and all. I just don’t relate well to women who seem to be above vulnerability, although that obviously reflects who I am as a reader more than it does a weakness on the writer’s part. I certainly know plenty of people who are less emotionally driven than I am who hate getting bogged down with too much sentimentality, regardless of the gender of the protagonist.

I believe this is one of the reasons I often find myself drawn to books about younger women in this genre. Fantasy novels written for a YA audience often strive to blend adventure with a well-shaded personality, and the heightened emotional range of teens (thank you hormones!) is often easier to capture than the mature, better-hidden motives of older characters. Teenagers often have a tougher time avoiding the  projection of some subconscious signal (the bigger the issue, the harder it is for them to completely hide) – whether it be through aggressive secretiveness, maudlin depression, or a calculated nonchalance – and that makes for cathartic reading.

In the car on the way to meet our ride to the lake, I asked my best friend’s father if it was entertaining to have his giggly girls back in the car, and he said, “You know, even now that you’re grown, I try to remember that if I keep my mouth shut, I learn a lot more about both of your lives than if I were trying to ask questions.” In my opinion, that attitude is what every YA and MG author should be striving for when writing a book; as much as possible, sit back and allow each character to speak without judgement or interference. Who they are as children, and who they want to become as adults – not to mention the behaviors exhibited during that critical in-between stage – are the most instructive and fascinating part of the reading (and living) experience.

To find out more about the team behind Team Human, go here (Sarah Rees Brennan also has a site here, but it’s currently under construction).

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, William Joyce

I’m still on vacation, but I wanted to share with you a page from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, a lovely children’s book my mother lent me while I was at home. It sums up precisely why I do what I do here:

Morris liked to share the books with others. Sometimes it was a favorite
that everyone loved, and other times he found a lonely little volume whose tale was seldom told.

Everyone’s story matters,” said Morris.

And all the books agreed.

To learn more about the journey of this book, go here.

Marathoning for Mortals, John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield

As I write this, I’m recovering from a workout that involved a 104 pound kettlebell. It looked so innocent before I started dead lifting it. Now I want to return to the gym for the sole purpose of destroying it. Unfortunately, I can’t move. Also, I think I would have to find a way to carry the damn thing to the fires of Mount Doom because it seemed otherwise indestructible. On the plus side, I did make my trainer laugh after I finished what he promised would be the last set (it wasn’t, although to be fair, he wasn’t intentionally lying to me – he’s just terrible at counting) and I told him that I had only barely restrained myself from spontaneously punching him in the chest when he told me I had ten more to go.

This is really just a roundabout way of saying that I’m not completely out of shape. I mean, sure, the shape is mostly round, but underneath it all, I’m pretty strong (like a sweaty, burly ox). When I quit my day job almost two years ago, I made a promise to myself that I would stop putting off taking care of my body, and by and large, that’s gone reasonably well. I can run a few miles at a time a (and do three times a week), I go to yoga (yes, it’s a class filled with women thirty years older than me, but whatever), and I work out with an enthusiastic puppy of a trainer (who good-naturedly puts me through hellish workouts once or twice a week). Of course, my favorite food is anything involving noodles or candy, so I clearly haven’t completely figured out this whole “my body is a temple” thing, but I’m working on it.

And one of my goals, since I was a kid watching the Boston Marathon with a racing heart, has been to run 26.2 miles. It’s one of those dreams that seems so far out of reach on a bad run that I just want to cry, and on a good day, when I imagine what it would feel like to go that last 500 feet…The problem is, I don’t know exactly know where to begin because A) I’m slow and B) the furthest I’ve ever managed to go is four miles. Enter The Penguin and Coach Jenny. I’ve already written about how much I love John Bingham’s approach to running here, so I figured that this summer, as I struggle with being bored with my old running routine, I would turn to some back of the packers I could trust.

I’d heard a lot of good things about this book, especially from commenters here, and I wanted to see if their plan would work for me. I’m not quite ready to tackle my marathon just yet, but I do want to run a half-marathon for charity in the next year, and although I have many friends who have run the distance before, I was feeling completely out of my league. How would I train? What was a realistic time to imagine finishing in? What if I have to go to the bathroom while on the course? For a newbie, these questions are just the tip of the daunting, long-distance iceberg. I needed advice and a solid plan of attack from people who understood that I just want to finish, preferably having run the whole way.

Last week, when I talked about writing a novel, I was just overflowing with ways to kickstart that creative endeavor. I was all “Climb every mountain! Ford every stream!” about it, and now I’m getting my comeuppance. Because, you see, I really believe writing a novel is a pretty simple endeavor when it’s stripped to the bare bones, and in my head, I know that running a half or a full marathon basically requires the same sort of approach, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff trying to convince myself to jump off. When I write, I feel like I’m coming home; it’s safe and comfortable and I can let it all hang out. When I’m running, it takes everything I have not to feel like I don’t belong on the same streets as someone better…and from where I stand, most everyone is better.

We all have this battle in our lives – on the one hand, we have those natural gifts that just need gentle pruning to be encouraged to flourish, while on the other, we fight to make the idea of who we want to be take root. I want to be a runner, but it’s a slippery hope. It takes painful concentration. It takes constant encouragement. It takes a book like this one, which carefully outlines the challenges of taking on this new distance without completely robbing me of my faith that it can be done.

What’s that? You want to run? Find out more about John and Jenny here, and I promise, you’ll want to get out there and do the impossible too.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer, Michael Rubens

This book was exactly what I needed to take on this vacation. As my friend Ruby, who recommended it to me, said, “it’s a space opera with the sort of witty, slightly scummy hero you usually only get in hard-boiled detective pulp.” Seriously, how can you go wrong?

I’ll tell you. You can’t.

The book is like a wonderful, extended episode of Firefly, a show I loved (and miss) with the passion of a thousand fan girls (you really don’t want to be on the wrong end of a thousand fan girls either – I’ve seen them in action and just thinking about it makes me retreat into the fetal position). Did you see The Avengers? What’s that? You liked it? This book is for you. Picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts and laughed until you wept with joy? Here’s the next book in your queue.

Are you the kind of person who likes to giggle in public? Say, on a train, plane, or  automobile (preferably one you aren’t driving)? Michael Rubens has your number. Maybe you prefer to read shamelessly hilarious cowboy space romps while at the beach with an ice-cold beer stuck in the sand beside you, or on that Kindle app on your computer (sure, right now it’s hidden behind TPS reports, but we all know it’s there and whole heartedly support you getting through a long day at the office adventuring through the universe with a Sheriff tab open).

A personal favorite method of mine, the “sneak a read while visiting family” technique utilizes the smart phone. God bless whoever invented the technology that allows me to get through a delightful chapter while everyone else is debating what we should do for the day (or making dinner, walking the dog, or taking forever to get ready in the morning). This is how I managed to read seven of twelve Sookie Stackhouse books in just over a week the last time I was in NH (I’m, like, a level nine ninja kindle phone reader after that) and made it possible to easily devour this one in less than a day.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer  is perfect for practicing any of the above techniques. Rubens’ characters are, in turns, sweet and ridiculous, his plot maintains a spritely pace throughout, and his sense of humor and mine have clearly been involved in a mind meld. It’s just the kind of light fare that goes hand-in-hand with a short summer attention span…in other words, ideal for both vacation and break-up-the-office-tedium.

Seriously. Just read it. Or don’t (but then, don’t come crying to me when your days are that much less filled with joy).

Head over here to find out more about Michael Rubens. I’ll race you.