8. Seriously…I’m Kidding , Ellen DeGeneres

Seeing as how I mostly read fiction books and classical literature, I decided to branch out and give my favorite funny lady a chance. I picked up a copy of Ellen DeGeneres’ book titled “Seriously…I’m Kidding” in hopes of getting a few laughs out of it. The book delivered laughs and a lot more than I expected.

So just in case you don’t know who Ellen is here is a briefing.  She is a stand-up comedian, television host, bestselling author, and actress. She hosts the talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and was also a judge on American Idol in its ninth season in 2009. I first became a fan after watching her talk show and witnessing her dance moves. She also does a lot of charitable work and has an impressive resume I won’t bore you with. Instead, I will tell you about her third book.

Just like you might expect from Ellen, it’s extremely funny and witty. But surprisingly the book is also incredibly uplifting and inspiring. Something I didn’t expect at all. Ellen is all about being positive and leading a happy life. In her book she offers some advice as to how one should achieve these things. Although she cracks a lot of jokes, she does take time to be serious and encouraging. It’s inspiring to see how she doesn’t take herself too seriously or life in general. The whole book truly represents who she is; random and silly, yet smart, honest and simply nice. You can’t help but love her and the book. These are chapters that are one sentence long and there are chapters with coloring pages in case you get tired of reading and want to color. Ellen covers everything from her wife’s obsession with hoarding lotion to her own colonoscopy appointment.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good summer read. If you can laugh at the silly things than this is for you, but if you are not a fan of Ellen’s humor you might not like it. Don’t expect to hear her life story and how she became who she is. Instead, expect to see who she is. I also think books like this one make perfect gifts for friends; some parts are relatable and make you think about your own life and funny situations you have been in. Expect to laugh out loud.

7. The Time Keeper, Mitch Albom

If you have ever read “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, then you are sure to love “The Time Keeper” by Mitch Albom. To me, the two novels are strikingly similar. Both are written in a simple language about big notions such as destiny and time. It was also the prefect book to read after “Tinkers” by Paul Harding which also deals a lot with the idea of time. This was definitely an easy read and a book you can finish in one night.

The story starts off with the introduction of the inventor of the world’s first clock. He is a young boy names Dor who is hopelessly in love with a girl called Allie. He ends up marrying her, however instead of spending time with his wife he is fascinated by numbering tings and eventually inventing the clock. Dor is punished for trying to measure time and soon he is banished to a cave for centuries and forced to listen to the voices of all who come after him seeking more years for themselves.  Finally, after centuries of misery and with his soul nearly broken, Dor is granted his freedom, along with a mission. He gets a chance to redeem himself by teaching two earthly people the true meaning of time.

This doesn’t prove to be easy since a lot of time has one by and humans have become dominated counting time and trying to make it go faster and slower. His journey begins with two unlikely people. One is a teenage girl who is about to give up on life, the other a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever. In order to  save himself, Dor must save them both.

Albom creates an unforgettable story that inspired me to further contemplate the idea of time. It is a big concept to grasp so I think about how most of my days are spent. I realize how the tick tock of the clock drives most of my actions and how imprisoned this thought makes me feel. To be free seems to only be possible if we forget about the notion of time. How can we do that? Maybe on a vacation or for a day, but for longer…it doesn’t seem possible. Time is a scary thing. Either way, “The Time Keeper” is a book I would recommend. It makes me curious about the other books Albom has written. Has anyone read any of them? If so, please let me know which ones you would recommend.

“We all yearn for what we have lost. But sometimes, we forget what we have.” 
― Mitch AlbomThe Time Keeper

6. Tinkers, Paul Harding

When I am old what will be the defining moments of my life that I will recall? Will it be something simply that currently holds no special meaning, or will it be something big that clearly impacted my life? Is it something that has already happened? These are just a few of the questions I found myself asking as I read “Tinkers” by Paul Harding. I was certain that this Pulitzer Prize winner was going to be the first bad review I write on this blog because I could not get into the book for the first 50 pages or so. However, it turned around and ended up being an enjoyable book after all. One that scared me immensely of old age and made me think for the first time about being old in a more serious way. In this book, the author celebrates life and truly puts mortality into a perspective even for those of us who are only 23 years old.

The story begins with an old man who lies dying (his last eight days) in his living room. George Washington Crosby is surrounded by his family which includes his grandchildren. He is stuck in bed awaiting death and is in pain. We learn that during his better days his big passion in life was repairing clocks. I found it ironic that in the room George is lying in all the clocks have been turned off so that he does not hear the tick tock as his time on earth winds down. George notices this and orders his grandson to wind them up and let them tick tock. He seems like he is not afraid of death and understands that his time is running out. As he rests in bed he drifts back to his childhood days in Maine and recalls the memories of his father Howard who was an epileptic and his grandfather who was a Methodist preacher full of madness. The novel goes back and forth between George’s memories and those of his father Howard and his grandfather. Their recollections cover everything from the struggles of illness, faith, love and loss.

In addition, Harding intertwines the beauty of nature that these characters are surrounded by and writes eloquently about it. There isn’t one bee that he forgets to describe in detail. To some readers this can get in the way of the story line but if you enjoy this type of writing style then Harding is your guy. One should also keep in mind that this is his first novel and is impressive. He has a way with words and often catches you of guard. This novel makes you think about life a little more deeply. It might sound cliché because all books make one think about their own life and such. However, this book has a special touch because it isn’t afraid to bring up death in order to highlight life. Because of this I have no hesitations in recommending it. This book will be a classic for many years to come. It might not seem appealing at first but if you keep with it, Harding crafts an incredible story. Here is a favorite quote from the book to give you a little taste.

“And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.” 

5. Rumi’s Little Book of Love, translated by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin

After a busy few weeks I finally got around to finishing “Rumi’s Little Book of Love” that was wonderfully translated by Maryam Mafi and Azima Melita Kolin. This is a collection containing 150 shorter poems by the 13th century Persian mystic Rumi. For those that are not familiar with Rumi and his work here is a little extra information. Rumi is a poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His importance is considered to surpass national and ethnic borders.  When it comes to his poems, they have been widely translated into many of the world’s languages and transposed into various formats. In 2007, he was described as the most popular poet in America. Because of this his works are widely available in most bookstores.

I have had this particular book for some time now and would read a poem or two every few days but never all in one sitting like I just did. I have to say that I recommend reading a few poems a day for many reasons. One of them being that despite the fact that these are very short poems they hold a depth of meaning that takes some time to contemplate. When you are reading a 150 of them in one sitting you don’t spend enough time on each of them like one should. They are beautiful pieces of art work. In addition, the translators should be praised as well because I understand just how difficult it is sometimes to translate something from one language into another without losing some beauty or the meaning in the process. The book also includes a nice introduction which gives the reader some background information about Rumi if they are not familiar. In addition, there is a list of terms and symbols in the back that was very useful.

Without a doubt I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys poetry. And for those of you who don’t, Rumi might surprise you. Despite being a 13th century poet his work is extremely relevant today and easy to read. Once you have mastered his shorter poems you might want to check out other books with Rumi’s work. One of the good ones is “The Essential Rumi” by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.  In the meantime, here is one of my favorite poems from this collection. Let me know in the comments what you think of it.

4. The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

File:Interpreterofmaladiescover.jpgThis weekend I visited some of my old friends in St. Louis and it made me quite nostalgic. You see, I’m originally from Bosnia and St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia itself. For a few days it felt like I was at home in Bosnia. It was a weekend filled with traditional food, great music and best of all, old friends.  It was the perfect time for me to finish reading “The Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri because it is a book filled with nostalgia. This Pulitzer Prize winner is actually a collection of 9 short stories and not a novel. It is written by an Indian American author and it primarily concentrates on the lives of Indians and Indian Americans who a dealing with culture clashes and nostalgia towards their homeland. Most of the characters are caught in between two worlds.

To me it was a collection of short stories that I could easily relate to because I have experienced many of the little things that the characters in the book deal with. From the simply wish to once again eat that candy only made in your country to the big things like missing seeing your family and being able to see them only once in a while.

I’m not going to summarize all of the short stories in the collection but will say that the story by the same title as the book was my favorite. It is a story about Mr. and Mrs. Das who are an Indian American family visiting their country of birth. They have a tour guide they hire to take them around called Mr. Kapasi who is a big part of the story. He observes the couple and their interactions with their three children. His attention to detail is a big part of the story and what makes it enjoyable to me. He is a great listener in addition to being observant. By the middle of the story he starts to fall in love with Mrs. Das and she opens up to him and tells him she has cheated on her husband and that one of her sons in the result of that. The reason she tells him this is because of his profession. Mrs. Das hopes that because he is an interpreter he can interpret her feelings and tell her why she did this. However, he is very open about how he feels and tells her she should be ashamed of herself.  I won’t spoil the ending but this story is all about people interpret things and how we have a freedom to see things how we want to see them, not necessarily how they are. It is easily a book I would recommend others to read.

3. The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Many times a novel weighs heavily on our shoulders and should not be read on a murky, rainy day.  “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham literally grasps your heart and you are holding your breath for over 200 pages. The most ironic thing is that you are reading about three people and the ordinary life they lead and not an adventure with twists and turns on every page. However, in the end as these three unconnected people meet their faith we see just how masterful with words Cunningham truly is. A novel deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it has received.

I have never read any works by Virginia Wolf but do enjoy when novels are written about great authors. It makes me want to pick up one of their books and see what it’s all about. So the novel starts out in an unfortunate way with Virginia Woolf committing suicide in 1941. She drowns herself in a river in Sussex, England. As she is drowning, Virginia marvels at the images of ordinary life around her. In the very beginning pages her husband finds her suicide note which is the actual suicide note she left when she committed suicide. For the sake of space I have included the suicide note in the “Favorite Quotes” section of the blog.

The novel is about three generations of women affected by a Virginia Woolf novel and their narratives go back and forth in the book. In those narratives the reader gets unfiltered thoughts and past memories of protagonists that are very unpredictable. In Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway” the whole book takes place in one day in the life of the central character Clarissa Dalloway. In Cunningham’s book it is one day in the life of each of the three central characters; Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf herself. Cunningham shows the beauty and profoundness of every day in our life. He illustrates how even the most ordinary day in every person’s life can be examined through the prism of one single day. I believe this is the true beauty of this novel.

The first is Woolf herself writing “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1923 and struggling with her own mental illness which this book showcases in an extraordinary and emotional way. You can’t help but sympathize with the struggles the human mind faces especially when it is as brilliant as Woolf’s. The second is Mrs. Brown, wife of a World War II veteran, who is reading “Mrs. Dalloway” in 1949 as she plans her husband’s birthday party. She is probably the most relatable character to me as well as surprising. I was most griped by her story and the struggles she faces. Often times she wonders if there is more than being a housewife, raising children and what has she given up to commit to this life. What talent has she wasted and what potential has she killed? These are the questions she asks in the privacy of a hotel room as she thinks about what it’s like to have the power to end your own life. The third is Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian, who plans a party in 2001 to celebrate a major literary award received by her good friend and former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of an AIDS-related illness. Here we see characters dealing with a lot of LGBTQ issues. From today’s perspective it is interesting to read about a lesbian living with her partner in the 1940s.

The situations of all three characters mirror situations experienced by Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway in “Mrs. Dalloway”, with Clarissa Vaughan being a very literal modern-day version of Woolf’s character. So with that being said, “Mrs. Dalloway” is now on my to-read list. As for my final thought on this novel…well it is not for the faint of heart but it is for those that like to read between the lines, that like to observe simple things in life and give those simply things profound meaning. It is a book to be read more than once because there is so much thought and feeling on every page. You need capacity to take it all in and you can’t do it all in two days. You need time to contemplate life, it is an ongoing process that Cunningham has captured in this novel. I found out that there is a movie based on this novel and will have to see it soon.

2. So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ

My reading adventures continued today with a book that most people do not come across at their local bookstore or on the list of top 100 books to read before you die. Nonetheless, “So Long a Letter” by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ is deserving of recognition. It is in fact one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century and the winner of the Noma Award.

“So Long a Letter” resembles an autobiographical novel and is kind of like the title suggests a long letter. It’s translated from French and done so very well. Despite not being in the original language it was written in, this novel resembles an epic poem and the author has a very special way of crafting images out of words. In fact, for most of the book I felt like I was bombarded with images of African culture. The theme is the condition of women in Western African society and the transition from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country. If you are at all interested in post-colonial African literature this is a must read. I do want to give a head up though. This novel will be a challenge if you are not familiar with contemporary African women’s literature or post-colonial literature. Most books in this genre are strongly rooted in culture and one gets the most out of these books if they know a little background information.

The novel starts of with Ramatoulaye Fall writing a letter to her lifelong friend Aissatou Bâ.  We learn from the very start that the reason she is writing this letter is because her husband has passed away recently.  As she is telling her friend about her husband’s death she describes the major events in their lives. You really get a good picture of the friendship the two women share. At the same time we learn of the struggles Ramatoulaye has had to endure during her life time. She is an educated and articulate woman who has worked as a teacher her whole life. She has given birth to twelve children but despite this her husband takes on a second wife and she feels betrayed and does not agree with the polygyny that is allowed in her tradition.  In her letters to Aissatou she expresses her hope that the old traditions and new freedoms can one day be combined to form a healthy balance. Aissatou is very much in agreement with her because we know she immigrated to the United States and pursued a feminist, monogamist relationship.  Ramatoulaye also writes about many other aspects of her life that are affected by her tradition and religion and truly opens the door to her world for the reader to grasp.

“So Long a Letter” is not the easiest book to read but it is most definitely worth the effort. It offers an insight into a culture we often don’t read much about.  In case you do pick up this book and are looking for others that are similar I highly recommend  The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta.

1. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

To kick off my “1 Year and a 100 Books” challenge I decided to start out by reading an adventure of sorts. I picked up Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winner “The Old Man and the Sea” and finished it the same day. Now, I have gone fishing only once in my life and it was by no means what I consider fun. Knowing this I was afraid that a story about an old fisherman and the sea would not be my cup of tea. However, I could not put the book down. Hemingway used very simple language to showcase one man’s struggle and defeat.

The story is about a fisherman named Santiago and his struggle to catch a large fish. He has gone 84 days without catching any fish and is considered very unlucky at this point. His apprentice Manolin can no longer fish with him because his parents want him to train with someone that actually catches fish. However, the young boy has a special bond with Santiago and visits him every night to bring him food and talk about baseball. In the very beginning Santiago lets the boy know he is going out into the Gulf Stream the next day to end his unlucky streak. The boy begs to go with him but the old man does not let him. Here, the love between these two characters is extremely apparent and that’s what made me love this story at first. But then things get even more interesting once Santiago goes out to fish. He hooks a very large fish but struggles to get it on the boat. This struggle goes on for two days and things get out of hand. I don’t wish to spoil the book for anyone but some strange things occur. At one point Santiago eats a dolphin among other raw fish in order to keep his strength up and this old man is anything but weak because he also ends up killing a number of sharks.

Towards the end of the book I was concerned that the ending would not meet my expectations but I was not disappointed.  The ending definitely brings the tale of the fisherman together. I feel that I will most likely reread this book at some point because it reminds me of the small fishing villages in Croatia that I have spent much time at. Every time I would get up early the fishermen would be going out and it always made me wonder what their work day was like…I hope it is not as difficult as Santiago’s and has a happier ending.

Here is a picture from last year that I took. It’s what I pictured as I read “The Old Man and the Sea”.

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