July 2008

Up for discussion this month is All About Lulu, the newly-released debut novel by Jonathan Evison. In the early pages of the book we follow Will through the death of his mother and his father’s subsequent remarriage to his grief counselor, Willow. His new stepmother also brings with him the attractive-in-her-own-way Louise (nickname: Lulu). Will, with his abnormally low voice for a 9-year-old, had stopped speaking after his mother’s death, and it is only through Lulu that he rediscovers his voice.

Lulu and Will forge a seemingly unbreakable friendship and eventually become pseudo-girlfriend and boyfriend. They develop their own secret language and depend on each other almost completely for friendship and understanding. That is until Lulu leaves for cheerleading camp the summer before they begin high school. Will is distraught that he won’t have Lulu with him for a full month, and this turns to complete devastation when Lulu returns completely changed. She no longer responds to their secret language. She locks herself away in her room most days. And, worst of all, she acts as though Will is invisible.

Throughout the rest of the book Will seeks to figure out what caused this change in Lulu. What happened while she was away? He spends years obsessed with her (and I have to admit it got a little creepy after awhile), but finally begins putting his life together. He gets his dream job as a radio announcer and even starts his own hot dog stand business with his Russian-immigrant landlord. Everything is running smooth until the last few chapters when he learns of events in Lulu’s life and is pulled back into her orbit and finally learns what it was that pushed her away from him all those years ago.

I really enjoyed this book, if only because of its loveably oddball cast of characters. First, there’s Will’s father and twin brothers who are all body builders. Evison takes the term “meathead” literally with these three, making light of the fact that they eat meat for just about every meal. Will, a vegetarian, laments several times that he thinks his dad believes the world is made of meat.

Then we have his Russian-immigrant neighbor, his ghost cat (Frank), and his philosophy teacher, who I particularly love because he enabled Evison to use his Sweats to Pants Ratio, of which I’ve always been a huge fan:

I’m developing something I call the sweats to pants ratio (SPR), by which success is measured relative to the days one spends in formal versus casual attire (formal being anything with pockets). By this measure, seven days a week in sweats is the pinnacle of success. I’m at about five-to-two right now. Pretty damn succesful.

So, what did you think of this one?

This month, in the hopes of getting more participation, I thought I’d ask some direct questions as well. Here goes:

1. Were you able to discern the secret before the end of the book?
2. What was your favorite part of the book?
3. Who were your favorite characters?
4. What did you think of Will’s obsession with Lulu? Did you find it realistic?

Also, you can get a book club reading guide for this book at Jonathan Evison’s site.

Oh, one last thing: Tomorrow I will be announcing the book for next month, but I haven’t selected anything yet. So if you have a suggestion, leave it below. And don’t forget to enter to win one of three lovely books here. Tomorrow’s the last day to enter!


I just finished Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think by Brian Wansink. I picked this one up because it was suggested reading at the end of In Defense of Food. Michael Pollan actually discusses a couple of Wansink’s studies in his book and that’s what really got me interested in reading Mindless Eating.

Wansink is a food psychologist (who knew this occupation even existed?!), and does tons of studies at Cornell about what we eat and why. One of my favorite studies he talks about is the bottomless soup bowl study, in which half the diners in a restaurant were given automatically refilling bowls (the bowls refilled from the bottom in such a way that diners were ignorant of the trick). People with auto-refill bowls ate 73 percent more soup than those with non-refillable bowls. The study showed that Americans base their eating behavior on outside cues – that is to say we stop eating when our bowl (plate, bag, etc.) is empty, rather than stopping when we feel full.

Wansink goes on to describe several other studies he has performed – studies that show how we react to labels, at what age we stop recognizing when we’re full, what stops us from snacking throughout the day – and then he tells us how we can avoid or curb those cues to stop us from eating more than we should. He explains that diets often don’t work because we’re trying to make major changes, but if you just try to cut out 100 or 200 calories a day, you’ll lose between 10 and 20 pounds in a year without even realizing it.

Some of his suggestions include drinking from tall skinny glasses instead of short fat glasses (unless you’re drinking water). His basis for this recommendation comes from this optical illusion:

The lines are actually the same size, but for some reason our minds don’t see it this way. If we have a tall, skinny glass, we will almost always pour less into it because it looks like more, whereas with a short, fat glass, we pour more because it looks like less. You can easily cut out calories this way. Similarly, using a smaller plate will make you feel fuller while eating less. This is based on another optical illusion:

Here, both blue dots are the same size, but our brain thinks the one surrounded by small dots is bigger because of what it’s compared to. This translates to plates in that you’ll feel like you ate much more food if it’s taking up a bigger amount of the plate, even if it’s the same amount of food. It’s strange to think that we can trick our brains in this way, but Wansink has proven it time and again with his studies.

Even if you’re not particularly interested in losing weight, this is an interesting book. I thought it was fascinating to learn about all of the behaviors we have unknowingly picked up in regard to food. Also, I’d love to know how Wansink comes up with all of these great ideas for studies.

For more information you can check out his Web site here (there’s even a mindless meter where you can test your skills as a mindful eater), and I found an interview with him here.

This book has also been reviewed on:
Living to Read

I recently moved, which is a great time to get rid of stuff I don’t need. I normally spend weeks before and after moving taking stuff to charities and dropping off recycling. This move was a bit easier because my boyfriend and I had thrown away just about everything we owned before we moved to Paris last year … or so we’d thought. When we picked up our boxes from storage and our many relatives who had been holding things for us, we realized we had kept much more than we’d thought. After unpacking the bulk of the boxes I found that I still had about seven boxes that I’d just stacked in my closet because I didn’t know what to do with their contents. That’s where It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff by Peter Walsh came in handy.

In the beginning of this book it feels a little bit too self-helpy. The first two chapters are all about our relationship to stuff and why we keep it, along with information about how your life could be different if you were to clean up your act. I was almost prepared to chuck the book at this point, but then he got into the real meat of why I checked this book out from the library. Walsh first has you make a plan (room function chart) of what you want each room of your house to look like and what you want the room to be used for. Then he goes through each room of the house and helps you decide what to keep and what to get rid of by using the same three easy steps:

*Refer to your Room Function Chart and have everyone sign on.
*Establish zones for the different activities that take place in this space.
*Remove what doesn’t belong.

He first helps you deal with the general clutter and garbage that accumulates in the houses of many hoarders, then he eases you into getting rid of the clutter you’re tied to emotionally. He has you ask yourself why you’re holding onto these items and helps you think of ways to display the items and give them a place of honor in your home, rather than allowing them to accumulate dust in the corner of the garage. If they aren’t valuabe enough to display, they should be gotten thrown out or given to someone who will value the item.

Walsh’s tone throughout the book is very conversational and makes it easy to get through. And after completing my own purge, I can see how the self-helpy part in the beginning was really necessary. There’s no point in reading a book like this if you aren’t going to be serious about making changes in your life. I come from a long line of hoarders (my parents have two storage sheds, a basement and a garage filled with boxes of stuff that won’t fit inside their home) so I understand how difficult it can be to let go of things. It took a long time for me to break the habit myself, but I can honestly say that life is much better with less stuff and more space. As Walsh says:

My job may be all about organization and decluttering, but I cannot say enough times that it is not about the “stuff.” I have been in more cluttered homes than I can count, and the one factor I see in every single situation is people whose lives hinge on what they own instead of who they are. These people have lost their way. They no longer own their stuff – their stuff owns them. I am convinced that this is more the norm than the exception in this country. At some point, we started to believe that the more we own, the better off we are. In times past and in other cultures, people believe that the worst thing that can happen is for someone to be possessed, to have a demon exercise power over you. Isn’t that what being inundated with possessions is – being possessed?

I’d love to give this book to my parents if I thought it would actually help. Unfortunately it would just add to their overabundance of clutter. My siblings and I have been trying for years to help them declutter, but every time we come back for a visit there’s just more stuff to go through. Peter Walsh has an amazing job – one I’d love to have. How did he get into this line of work anyway? It must feel amazing to help so many people to get out from under the weight of their possessions. Personally speaking, it has been one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. And I’m glad to finally be almost to the end of that journey.

This is a pre-challenge announcement. I’m going to be hosting a Banned Books Challenge starting January 2009 (I don’t think anyone else has one of these, but please let me know if you’ve heard of something like it. I don’t want to step on any toes around here). The goal will be to read 12 banned books by the end of next year. I have already put together a site here, which includes a list of banned books, although I have yet to make buttons and a sign up sheet. This is really just to get you interested.

I know everybody signs up for tons of challenges at the beginning of the year so I thought if I put mine out there early then more people would have it in their minds to participate. This will be my first time hosting a challenge so I hope to get some good participation. I’ll post about this again as it gets closer, I just wanted to let you all know it was going to be available. I’m super excited for it!

P.S. Don’t forget to leave a comment here for a chance to win one of three books!

Lolita was the second book selected by my public library for their book club’s Banned Books Series. I have to admit I had no idea what this book was about when I started reading it. I had read that it’s one of the world’s “most beautiful love stories.” And I knew it was a bit illicit because of Reading Lolita in Tehran (another book I still have to read). But I had no idea it was about a pedophile who essentially kidnaps his stepdaughter and keeps her under his thumb until she’s old enough and smart enough to figure out how to escape.

As I began reading this book I fully understood why some people had asked that this book be banned. After all, it kind of reads like a how-to book on pedophilia. But when the subject came up at book club, I found myself defending the book, saying that if someone read this book and thought it condoned their own behavior or it “inspired” them to do something of this sort, well they were likely to have done it anyway. I said this because I saw the reactions of the others who had read this book and all of us, whether we thought the writing was beautiful or the story interesting, were disgusted with the main character and judged him accordingly. This book isn’t going to turn anybody into a pedophile who doesn’t already entertain such thoughts.

The book itself is beautifully written. In the first part when Humbert Humbert is falling in love with Lolita, I was quite taken by his descriptions of her … until I remembered that he was talking about a 12-year-old girl. I also really enjoyed the French phrases sprinkled throughout the book. I felt like each one was a little French quiz for me, especially because he offers no translation like many books do today. His descriptions of living in France and going to the Mediterranean made me think of my own time there, which is always a fun thing.

Aside from all of that though the book is really interesting and it raises a lot of questions about love and family. It also shows the inner workings (albeit fictional) of a truly deranged person and how one is able to justify what he is doing despite all evidence that it is wrong. I also thought it was quite interesting – and fitting – that Humbert Humbert often befriended other sexual deviants. I think that is probably true of that type of person in the real world.

This book drags a little in the middle and it was not an easy book to read because there are many historical and literary references throughout the text, along with the aforementioned untranslated French phrases (some Latin and German as well), so I highly recommend getting the annotated version. I didn’t know there was an annotated version until I went to the book club meeting and now I feel like I need to read it all over again so I can get the inside jokes that some of the others understood better than I did.

Overcoming the Tough Stuff is the theme this week over at Runner’s Lounge and it really got me thinking. For me the hardest thing about running has not been running itself. The hardest thing is convincing my brain not to give up. I even looked into the subject and found this fab book: Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald. I haven’t read it, but I’m definitely planning to.

My brain has been my biggest obstacle in a lot of things, but especially in sports. In high school I was on the diving team, which was the most challenging sport I’ve ever participated in. Every day I had to wrap my brain around what I was trying to accomplish and convince myself to get up on that diving board regardless of how many flops I made before completing a good dive. I watched as other girls on the team picked this up seamlessly and I was really discouraged for a long time, but it didn’t keep me from coming back (despite my ever-growing repertoire of bruises from WATER). For me, running is pretty much the same thing.

There’s less fear involved in running (and less bruising, which I like), but the mind game is constantly there. I have to convince myself to get out the door despite the ever-increasing temperature in summer (or the rain in winter). I spend half my repeating this mantra: “You’ve ran this far before. This is no problem. You know you can do it so don’t you dare stop now.” Every run. You’d think after more than two years of running my mind would know that I can complete this mileage, that I’ve got what it takes. But each time I’m out there I’m talking to myself, convincing my brain not to give in.

I think getting through the tough parts of training are different for everyone. For me, it’s reminding myself that it’s not really as hard as I think it is. It’s convincing myself that if I just get up and get out the door, I’ll be able to make it to the end. Offer yourself a reward if you have to. Set small goals so you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment each time you get out on the running trail. Get a buddy so you feel obligated to run. Keep track of your times/paces/mileage if that’s what encourages you. Anything to help your mind get through this crazy running thing you know you love – get out there and do it.

P.S. Want to read about someone with serious mental strength and endurance? Check out Dean Karnazes. This dude ran 50 marathons in 50 days! Now there’s something I can’t wrap my mind around.

P.P.S. Still no running for me. Managed to sweat it out on the bike two days in a row now. My leg was feeling better this morning, but it was a fake-out.

A few weeks back I wrote a post about how I didn’t get the whole runner’s high thing. It was mostly about how I didn’t feel more energized from running. On that same post, Layla left this comment:

I am in SUCH a better mood if I run. I’ve been off all running for 15 days now (see? I’m counting the days) due to a possible stress fracture, and it’s been killing me. Ask most people who know me, and they’ll agree that I’ve been in the worst possible funk — mad at the world, getting as closed to depressed as I can get, shutting people out. I went on an 11-mile bike ride Saturday, and suddenly the world looked a little better. I should have done that much earlier, before I pissed off/confused a bunch of people. I’m still pretty bummed out, but I’ve definitely realized that I’m addicted to running.

As for energy, yeah, I feel a lot more motivated after running. It puts the world back into perspective, which is a kind of runner’s high.

I don’t remember it feeling at all like this when I started running, but I also don’t remember a time when I was suddenly addicted to the endorphins/energy. I think it just snuck up on me, and when I’ve had to ease off or, as in this case, completely stop running for a bit, that’s when I notice the difference. Just be thankful that nothing is making you realize it the hard way.

Unfortunately, I am learning it that hard way. Now that I’ve been off running for 5 days I’m finally beginning to understand. Not only have I been completely depressed about this, but I feel like I have tons of pent-up energy. I went for a bike ride on Friday and I tried doing kicks in the pool for a half hour today, but it just wasn’t the same. I barely broke a sweat. The worst part though is that my leg shows no signs of getting better. It actually feels worse today than it did a few days ago. So this week my goal is not to do any running and to continue with the ice. I’m hoping this way week 9 will have me hitting the running trails again…

This week’s totals:
Mileage: 7.56 miles
Average Pace: 12:12
(I think this reflects my injury pretty accurately.)
Total Training Miles: 85.2

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