July 2022 Book Club: The Design of Everyday Things

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

I really wanted to like this one but had the hardest time getting into it. Perhaps I need to give it a second try at a later date, but I honestly struggled to make it past the second chapter. Though the writing was dry, it reminded me of a time I enthusiastically purchased a teapot-cup combo from a thrift shop. In theory, it was genius. The teapot stacks inside the mug for easy storage and was designed so that you could enjoy two cups of tea using the included mug – perfect for a morning where you’re not sharing a pot with someone. In practice, however, the handle on both items was too small to use. This meant that you inevitably burned your fingers pouring the tea and again trying to drink it (the material of the pot was also too small. Despite paying $2 USD for the items, I couldn’t help but attempt to use them again and again over the course of two years before finally donating them.

I think this concept of design is interesting and can be applied to everyday life. There are things that seem like a good idea, but when you try them out it turns out they’re not a good fit. Maybe because it adds too much driving time to your commute so you never make the trip. Maybe the goal didn’t actually fit into your lifestyle. Perhaps the real point is that you give the idea the freedom to fail and then learn from your mistakes to improve the design. In thinking of my teapot/mug combo, the design would have worked better if the set was made of a thicker clay or if both items had a more practical handle. I will acknowledge here that sometimes items are donated to a thrift store for a reason and I should consider that when purchasing.

Back to fiction for August, which I tend to enjoy more by default. One of my friends lent me her copy of The House in the Cerulean Sea and it seems like the perfect book to slip into in the heat of summer:

Cover art for the House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

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.