June 2022 Book Club: Practical Magic

After our plot-driven May book club, Practice Magic offered a slower more relationship-focused story. It was interesting to watch Sally and Gillian experience the same things as children and internalize them differently. One child became dependable and predictable while the other child couldn’t get away from what she knew fast enough. This in turn shaped the women they grew into and caused them to grow apart. Gillian needed adventure and constantly fell for the wrong man. Sally wanted to be normal and found herself falling quickly for the two men in her life.

The same can be said of Sally’s children. They started the story close and then grew apart when they left the Aunt’s house. Almost as if the physical location of the Aunt’s house provided a glue that kept both sets of sisters together. As the outside world wedged them apart, it was that same world that provided a humbling experience that brought them back together.

This begs the question, is it destiny that the Owens women stick together in the end or, is it the bonds of family are strong them when the going gets tough? Just as, is it destiny that men who fall in love with Owen’s women have something terrible happen to them or, is it simply circumstance? One of the things that Practical Magic does very well is display magic in a way that makes you feel as if it’s both all around you while also being just out of your reach, which makes answering these questions hard (although I’m inclined to believe there’s something to be said of destiny and fate, perhaps even that you have some control of it).

All in all, this was a comforting read that provided as many layers as the reader was interested in discovering. I picked up Magic Lessons (the prequel) after finishing Practical Magic and think that it’s an interesting companion novel. Although I thought about putting it down several times, I enjoyed that Magic Lessons took on this question of destiny vs the past catching up with you and recommend it as a read if you’d like to hear more about how the Owens family line came to be.

Cover art for the Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.

I’ve had a growing interest in how the design of something has an effect on its use and was recommended the Design of Everyday Things. Not necessarily the steamy beach read that July tends to call for, but a nice quick read that may lead to some ah-ha moments never the less.

First, businesses discovered quality as a key competitive edge; next came science. Now, Donald A. Norman, former Director of the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of California, reveals how smart design is the new frontier. The Design of Everyday Things is a powerful primer on how-and why-some products satisfy customers while others only frustrate them.

May 2022 Bookclub: The Turn of the Key

Cover art for The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.

The Turn of the Key drew me in within two or three paragraphs and quickly became a stressful book that I couldn’t put down. I genuinely enjoyed the way that Ruth Ware started (and then proceeded to tell) the story as if Rowan (Rachael?!) was writing a letter to a lawyer in hopes of getting her side of the story out. It reminded me of reading Amanda Knox’s memoir where you want to believe her but also want to know what happened to her roommate that night (Note: Amanda Knox’s story is one that I’ve been following since the beginning, I’m glad she’s back in the states with her family).

One of the early images that stuck with me early on was Rowan describing how she didn’t belong in the prison, only to look in the mirror and see that she had been transformed by her environment. It was fantastic foreshadowing of how she was going to be shaped by the nannying job and provided insight that Rowan was possibly someone who could be influenced by those around her.

When I read books like this, I’m often left pondering the “real or not real” question. In other words, does Rowan actually hear someone pacing in the attic every night or was it actually a bird and her imagination? Where did the doll head actually come from? Do the little girls have the ghosts of the little girls who died speaking to them on a regular basis? If Rowan hadn’t been primed that the previous nanny’s had quit due to superstition, would she spend so much time questioning her surroundings?

Having completed the story, I can’t help but be amazed by the ending. What a little girl. What a thing to have to live with for the rest of her life. This book was fantastic and I didn’t see it coming! This begs the question, what exactly happened to Rowen. It’s clear that the letters are never sent and that they “don’t really matter” when found in the future, does that mean she’s found not guilty? Or does it mean that she kept the secret and took a life sentence?

Cover art for Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.

As the weather gets warmer, I find myself itching to get out and start foraging again. In honor of wandering through the woods and learning about how plants can be used, we’ll be reading Practice Magic by Alice Hoffman for June’s book club. Since this is a movie I’ve seen a handful of times, it will be interesting if I can let go of picturing Sally as Sandra Bullock and Gillian as Nicole Kidman.

The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…

April 2022 Bookclub: Stardust

Cover art for Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

Stardust has a special place in my heart. It’s a book that I can reach for again and again, without the intention of discovering something new, but rather the intention of falling into a land I wish I could go to. Portal literature (think books like Alice in Wonderland where the reader starts off in the real world before “falling down the rabbit hole”) tends to hold a special place in my heart because I love the idea that there is a magical land waiting for me to discover the door to it.

There are many different adaptations of Stardust and they all seem to tell the story just a little differently. One of the most notable differences, in my opinion, is whether or not there is a final battle between the witches and Tristian for Ivaine’s heart. In the book, the witch recognizes that Ivaine’s heart was given freely to Tristian and therefore not usable to her. Though not very sensational, this idea has always struck me as romantic and beautiful. After all the idea that a heart freely given to someone cannot be taken by someone else provides a beautiful moral to the story, be careful who you give your heart to for you have no control how gentle they will be with it or how willing they will be to protect it.

The book also feels more adult than the movie does, spending more time developing the land beyond the wall as a place as opposed to racing the viewer through it while bouncing from one plot point to the next. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the movie (in fact it’s one of my favorites), it’s just that the two versions are very different experiences.

No matter which version you are enjoying, it’s hard to get over the idea that a bunch of brothers need to kill each other for the right to rule over the land. There’s no way that I can look at this where I end up with confidence in the final son who is allowed to rule (although perhaps that is the point considering that Tristian is said to do a good when he finally decides to take up the mantle).

May’s book club will be a little more serious than Stardust, we’ll be reading Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. It’s been a little while since I’ve fallen into a good suspense story and The Woman in Cabin 10 was enjoyable. Let’s see if reading about a nanny working with children who ends up in jail is more intense when you have a baby sleeping in the other room!

Cover art for Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

March 2022 Book Club: Laziness Does Not Exist

Cover art for Laziness does not exist by Devon Price

Over the last few months, I have worked very hard to let go of the idea that doing nothing is a sign of laziness. Some of this translated into craft breaks and some of this translated into canceled plans with friends (who thankfully understand needing a break themselves and didn’t take it personally). For the first time in a long time, I started making a concerted effort to listen to what my body was saying that it needed instead of pushing it just a little further. If I took the dog on a hike and didn’t have the energy to make it to the top, I turned around so that I could enjoy the entire hike rather than force myself to the top in a daze. Admittedly, a lot of this attitude came from needing to cope with the changes that being pregnant brings upon your body. You can either get mad at yourself for not doing something or you can be proud of yourself for doing the best you could in that moment. Rather than spend 9 months beating myself up, I chose to do the latter.

I love a good NPR podcast because they’re both informative and easy to listen to. After beating myself up because I pulled a muscle putting on a pair of pants that prevented me from running a race I was looking forward to in October (yep, weird pregnancy thing), I found myself curled up with the dog listening to “You aren’t lazy. You just need to slow down.” by Life Kit. Though they were discussing work, Price seemed to be speaking directly to me. You’re not lazy for taking time off running, your body gave you a sign that you need to do things differently and you’re listening.

Ok, they didn’t literally say that at all, but they did discuss how we’ve been trained to ignore our body’s symbols in the interest of increasing productivity. Combine that with having just beat myself up for having bodily limitations, I decided to take what Price was saying to heart and added their book to my to-read list. This brings us to our book club today.

Laziness does not exist challenged some of the things I grew up hearing, for example, “they homeless because they’re lazy”. Now, I knew going into the book that there are many reasons that someone may be homeless and some of these reasons have nothing to do with whether or not this person is able to find work. I also went into this book knowing that if you are homeless, it becomes harder to do a lot of things, including look for work. What I had never really thought about was how much work many things I take for granted are: going to the bathroom, being able to leave my things safely somewhere, and locating an internet connection. Some of those are made harder to find just due to the stigma of being homeless!

It was also useful to read stories about people with different types of anxiety, ADHD, depression, or other mental health issues, as well as how marginalized people, in general, are quickly labeled as lazy. These individuals are often taught by society that their differences don’t matter and are given less freedom and autonomy as a result of appearing “lazy”. Having heard stories from my dad’s childhood, he was marked as a “trouble maker” early on and placed in lower-level classes. It wasn’t until he scored high on his SATs that someone finally thought about placing him in an honors course where he excelled with fewer distractions and more stimulating material. This circles back to the idea of just because someone does something differently or it takes someone longer to do something doesn’t mean they’re incapable of doing it or that they’re doing it wrong.

This was an interesting read that I’ve started recommending to friends who look like they could use a lesson in listening to their bodies.

April brings us back to fiction as I reach for one of my favorite books: Stardust by Neil Gaiman. If you’re interested in listening to the story instead of reading it, I highly recommend the BBC radio adaptation. I love portal literature that takes me away to unexplored lands and am ready to enjoy the comfort that comes with re-reading a story and visiting with characters you’ve already come to love.

Cover art for Stardust by Neil Gaiman.

In the sleepy English countryside of decades past, there is a town that has stood on a jut of granite for six hundred years. And immediately to the east stands a high stone wall, for which the village is named. Here in the town of Wall, Tristran Thorn has lost his heart to the hauntingly beautiful Victoria Forester. One crisp October night, as they watch, a star falls from the sky, and Victoria promises to marry Tristran if he’ll retrieve that star and bring it back for her. It is this promise that sends Tristran through the only gap in the wall, across the meadow, and into the most unforgettable adventure of his life.

February 2022 Book Club: The Henna Artist

Cover art for the Henna Artist by Alka Joshi.

The Henna Artist is the story of Lakshmi, a 30ish-year-old woman who fled an abusive marriage in hopes of the freedom that comes with being self-reliant and independent. For ten years, Lakshmi creates beautiful henna designs on the wealthy women of Jaipur and uses herbal medicine to help them with their fertility, arthritis, and other health ails. The interesting thing about Lakshmi is that the things that she’s worked so hard for, the beautiful house where her family can come live with her, create a prison more restrictive than her gender or abusive marriage.

One of the first themes that presents itself in this book is that starting over is not a sign of weakness but a sign of hard work. In some ways, it would have been easier for Lakshmi to stay with her husband than to leave and try to make her way in the world. But she allowed herself to dream and then gave herself the space to make that dream come true. When that dream fell apart, Lakshmi tried to pick up the pieces only to discover that it was no longer her dream. This lead to moving on to work with doctors to create a complementary medicine program, work that she could be truly proud of. Radha (Lakshmi’s sister) throws herself into starting over when she moves to Jaipur, but then struggles to leave behind the idea that her baby wasn’t born of love. Then she struggles to leave her baby behind so that she has the opportunity of a better life. Lakshmi’s struggles to start over after she leaves him, but learns how to support women instead of abusing them.

Freedom is another interesting theme throughout the book. Freedom of choice. Freedom to make money. Freedom to move throughout the world. Yet, everytime Lakshmi turns around she’s faced with something that directly challenges her freedom. First, her husband and Radha come to find her, effectively turning her life upside-down. Then, Lakshmi must balance proving herself to the palace with keeping her benefactor’s wife happy. On the one hand, the opportunity provides Radha the freedom to attend a nice school, on the other hand, it traps Lakshmi into long work hours and leads to her sister getting pregnant. Then the lies start and Lakshmi’s world starts to fall apart around her, which is semi-ironic as the world she created was in itself created by a lie. Perhaps the message is that honesty can set you free as much as true freedom is found when you allow yourself to change your mind.

Another interesting theme throughout the book is the idea of being cursed and having that curse follow you no matter where you go. The curse began when Lakshmi fled her marriage and left her family behind for a new life. By creating a new name for herself, Lakshmi was able to live her day-to-day life with minimal reminders of what she left behind. Lakshmi’s curse was a deep fear of her past catching up with her and a desire for her parents’ forgiveness and approval. Radha’s curse was more out in the open, constantly being called the “bad-luck-girl” and a constant struggle to find self-worth. Both sisters had to let go and take a hard look at their choices/impulses in order to move forward in their lives. I appreciated the hope that this theme brought to the book, as both Lakshmi and Radha were able to take charge of their own destinies and move forward.

Though the story gave us a surface-level understanding of Jaipur and the lives of our characters, the Henna Artist was an enjoyable read. Though I haven’t settled on when, I do think I’ll pick up the second book, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, to find out what happens next. Something that is unusual for me when an initial narrative wraps up nicely while giving me space to dream about what happens next.

It’s been a little while since I’ve picked up a non-fiction book, let’s give Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price a try for next month. Price came onto my radar after they were featured on the NPR podcast Life Kit: You aren’t lazy. You just need to slow down. It’s a quick 17 minute listen that I highly recommend.

Cover art for Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price.

Extra-curricular activities. Honors classes. 60-hour work weeks. Side hustles.

Like many Americans, Dr. Devon Price believed that productivity was the best way to measure self-worth. Price was an overachiever from the start, graduating from both college and graduate school early, but that success came at a cost. After Price was diagnosed with a severe case of anemia and heart complications from overexertion, they were forced to examine the darker side of all this productivity.

Laziness Does Not Exist explores the psychological underpinnings of the “laziness lie,” including its origins from the Puritans and how it has continued to proliferate as digital work tools have blurred the boundaries between work and life. Using in-depth research, Price explains that people today do far more work than nearly any other humans in history yet most of us often still feel we are not doing enough.

Filled with practical and accessible advice for overcoming society’s pressure to do more, and featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work, Laziness Does Not Exist “is the book we all need right now” (Caroline Dooner, author of The F*ck It Diet).