Reading Kurt Vonnegut – May 2019

One of my reading goals for 2019 is to become more familiar with works by different authors by featuring a different author every month (see A Focus on Authors Reading Challenge). May was spent reading as many works by Kurt Vonnegut. My first experience with Vonnegut was reading Mother Night a few years back after my husband recommended it. I absolutely loved it! A little while later, I read Cat’s Cradle for an IRL book club, which I didn’t enjoy as much as Mother Night. 

9780385333849_p0_v1_s550x406Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: March 31, 1969
Pages: 205 pages
Format Read: Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Husband’s book collection
Date finished reading: May 22, 2019

Goodreads Description: Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time, Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ½

4980Title: Breakfast of Champions
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: 1973
Pages: 303
Format Read: Audiobook/Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby app & husband’s book collection
Date finished reading: May 28, 2019

Goodreads Description: In Breakfast of Champions, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s  most beloved characters, the aging writer Kilgore Trout, finds to his horror that a Midwest car dealer is taking his fiction as truth. What follows is murderously funny satire, as Vonnegut looks at war, sex, racism, success, politics, and pollution in America and reminds us how to see the truth.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦

Galapagos by  Kurt VonnegutTitle: Galapagos
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: 1985
Pages: 195
Format Read: Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library book sale in Maryland
Date finished reading: June 5, 2019

Goodreads Description: Galápagos takes the reader back one million years, to A.D. 1986. A simple vacation cruise suddenly becomes an evolutionary journey. Thanks to an apocalypse, a small group of survivors stranded on the Galápagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave, new, and totally different human race. In this inimitable novel, America’s master satirist looks at our world and shows us all that is sadly, madly awry–and all that is worth saving.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My Review: When my husband convinced me 10 years ago to finally read Kurt Vonnegut. I did not know at all what to expect. Vonnegut was like nothing I had ever read before. I think you could make the argument that if you mixed Joseph Heller and Margaret Atwood together, you may get something that comes at least a little close to what reading a Vonnegut book is like. There is satire and there is darkness. If those elements were not enough, Vonnegut also throws in some science fiction. He created lines that would forever be used as catch phrases in regular conversation. An example of this is that my husband always says the phrase: “so it goes”. I have started to use that phrase as well and realized where that phrase came from when I picked up Slaughterhouse-Five a few weeks ago. Vonnegut covers dark topics (like war) with a bit of humor that makes the story engaging and entertaining. I also enjoy how Vonnegut recycles characters but without forcing the reader to read his stories in a particular order. For instance, Kilgore Trout is fleetingly mentioned in many of Vonnegut’s books, but in Breakfast of Champions, the reader finally gets to learn more about Kilgore Trout.

Vonnegut stories are almost in a genre by themselves. While I really enjoyed Mother Night (my first Vonnegut read many years ago) and Galapagos (my most recent Vonnegut read), I didn’t quite love his more popular books like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions. While they are still amazing, I just never can quite get into the science fiction parts that are a little out there. I fully admit that this issue is probably because I don’t tend to enjoy science fiction.

My Overall Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ½

Book Review: The Four Agreements

6596Title: The Four Agreements
Author: Don Miguel Ruiz
Genre: Nonfiction, Self-Help, Inspirational
Publisher: Amber-Allen Publishing
Publication Date: November 7, 1997
Pages: 140
Format Read: Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: From a friend
Date finished reading: March 13, 2019

Goodreads Description: In The Four Agreements, bestselling author don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.

My Review: I regularly listen to the podcast By the Book. In the last couple weeks, they have been living by The Four Agreements. I received this book from my former boss more than ten years ago. That was long before I read self-help books or cared about self-improvement, so on my bookshelf it sat. This podcast gave me a reason to finally pick it up.

I would say that I am pretty skeptical when it comes to self-help literature. It is always amazing to me how different people can view self-help literature in completely different ways. While the By the Book ladies did not like this book at all, The Four Agreements definitely hit home for me. Thanks to Don Miguel Ruiz, I definitely saw multiple areas in my belief system that were keeping me from achieving happiness.

This realization started immediately with his section on the Domestication of Humans. I often find myself acting and reacting in ways that are similar to my childhood atmosphere. Sometimes I find myself emulating behavior that I witnessed or received during my childhood – both positive and negative behavior. I see it in the way that I treat others and especially in the way I treat myself. “And this is based on a belief system that we never chose to believe. These beliefs are so strong, that even years later when we are exposed to new concepts and try to make our own decisions, we find that these beliefs still control our lives.” (p.10) Let me be clear, I am in no way blaming my family or friends for the past. It is in my power to move forward and change the beliefs that I feel are harmful to myself and others.

Along the same lines, I often find that I put a lot of pressure on myself to please other people. I want this person to like me or be proud of me (friends, parents, family members, significant others, etc.), so I purposely behave or speak in a specific manner. “Trying to be good enough for them, we create an image of perfection, but we don’t fit this image. We create this image, but this image is not real. We are never going to be perfect from this point of view. Never!” (p.17) I also believe in the same manner, society puts a lot of pressure on us to behave a certain way. Mr. Ruiz asks that we do not give into fear, but it is definitely scary to go against the belief system that has been ingrained in you for so long.

The First Agreement: Be Impeccable With Your Word
Never underestimate the power words can have over you and others. I read this section after having raised my voice to my husband. I realize now after having read this section that my tone of voice and the words that I used were not only probably hurtful to my husband but also does not encourage open communication between us. Both of these things were not my intention, and I should have chosen a much different approach. I can definitely try to use words that bring others joy and words that also bring joy to myself.

The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally
This I think is probably the hardest agreement to make. Most of us just can’t help but to take things personally. A long time ago I was in a very emotionally destructive relationship. My significant other was verbally abusive. It was my first adult romantic relationship, and it definitely shaped the person I became. Because I cared about him, I took everything he said to me as truth. I believed every criticism and every hurtful judgement. I took that abuse and used it against myself. I suffered emotionally and eventually physically. It is really difficult to overcome abuse both verbally and physically, especially when that abuse comes from people we care about. My wake up call, for lack of a better description, came when that verbal abuse turned to physical abuse. While that helped me release myself from that toxic relationship, lots of emotional damage had been done, and it took years for me trust words and hold myself to a better image than the one he had me believe of myself. “Self-abuse comes from self-rejection, and self-rejection comes from having an image of what it means to be perfect and never measuring up to that ideal.” (p.20-21) “In your whole life nobody has ever abused you more than you have abused yourself.” (p.20) This is a hard agreement, because you should be able to take the words and actions of people you love personally. Those words and actions should always come from and show love. Human nature does not always allow us to behave in this way, and we sometime have to learn that actions and words may just be a response to something else negative going on in that person’s life, and they are taking it out on you, intentionally or unintentionally. We can choose to take it personally or not.

The Third Agreement: Don’t Make Assumptions
I can honestly say that I make assumptions all the time. It reminds me of the phrase: do what I mean not what I say. Or how often do we use the phrase: you know what I mean. My husband and I have shared more than 10 years together, and I just recently started to realize that things that are obvious to me are not often obvious to him. I frequently assume that he will know to do something without me asking him to do something. I don’t communicate these things with him and then get mad at him when something doesn’t happen or get accomplished. I also assume things based on what people do or say. For example, if a friend doesn’t respond to a message right away, one might immediately jump to the conclusion that that friend is mad at them. “Because we are afraid to ask for clarification, we make assumptions, and believe we are right about the assumptions; then we defend our assumptions and try to make someone else wrong.” (p.64) Plus, I am also guilty of nervously avoiding confrontation, because I assume if I say a certain thing or behave a certain way, someone will react negatively. However, in many situations (if not all) I should not assume that the outcome will be negative, and even if it is negative, I should not take it personally. It is better to be honest and truthful and upfront. “All the sadness and drama you have lived in your life was rooted in making assumptions and taking this personally.” (p.64)

The Fourth Agreement: Always Do Your Best
We should always go into each day wanting to do the best we can do at work and at home. “Action is about living fully. Inaction is the way we deny life.” (p.82) I doubt that I’m the only one that has spent time day-dreaming at work or school or decided to binge the recent Netflix show instead of achieving some of my household goals. Looking at those moments, I can honestly say that I regretted those actions, as they did not bring me the same level of happiness that I get at the end of the day when I accomplish many useful tasks. Although, I still believe that taking a break now and then to do something that is relaxing is necessary.

None of these above agreements will be possible if we don’t go through the process of Breaking Old Agreements. To do this, Mr. Ruiz gives us great steps to accomplish this: First thing to do is let go of the old agreements that are keeping you from achieving happiness. Let go of the past. Use forgiveness as a tool to do this if necessary. Second, we need to acknowledge the dream life we want to live. What makes us happy? Live love. “Now it’s up to you to choose what to believe and what not to believe. You can choose to believe in anything, and that includes believe in yourself.” (p.106) Third, we need to come to terms with the fact that our mortal time is limited. Once we can fully acknowledge this, then we can truly be free to enjoy being alive and live each moment to the fullest. Each moment should bring us personal happiness. “Happiness is a choice, and so is suffering.” (p.129)

I appreciate that this book does acknowledge that these agreements and the steps that it takes to achieve these agreements are not easy. That you may fail at them day after day, but that you should continue to attempt to achieve these no matter how hard it is if you want to achieve freedom and happiness.

In conclusion, I’m not saying that I believe these agreements are the only way to achieve true personal happiness. I do struggle with the Fourth Agreement, as I find that it is hard for me to be the best I can be and live up to the expectations that others put on me (boss, friends, family) and also the expectations I put on myself. I am an upholder (see The Four Tendencies) by nature. I make to-do lists on a daily basis of things I hope to accomplish both in my work life and home life. I can honestly say that I rarely accomplish everything on those lists in a day. When I do, it is such a wonderful feeling, and I am beyond happy, but often I don’t, which leaves me with some difficult emotions. “If we allow our emotions to deplete our energy, we have no energy to change our life or to give to others.” (p.111) As mentioned, the By the Book ladies did not enjoy this book. They felt that there were areas where the author was victim blaming and at times excusing the bad behaviors of others (Second Agreement). Near the end of the book, the author also talks about the act of letting go of the past and forgiveness. I completely understand the intense emotions of dislike that may stem from these sections of the book, especially for victims of abuse. We all have moral choices to make, and when someone makes a decision to abuse someone else, there are no excuses. They should be held accountable for their actions. Those abuses are often unavoidable for the victim, and no matter what the author says, those actions will be taken personally. They may be physically and emotionally damaging. However, I’ve spent many years blaming myself and blaming the abuser, and I’m done blaming. I do not believe that the act of blaming has helped me overcome or be happy. However, the act of letting go of the blame and hatred, as hard as that has been, has definitely helped me become happier and a better version of myself. I believe that the Second Agreement is more about giving yourself the power and control to be who we want to be, to not let others tear you down or make you feel bad about yourself. I feel that it is not easy to translate ancient ideals of a different culture into our American modern society, but I found enough thoughtful insights throughout this book that will help me obtain a more positive and happier relationship with friends, family, coworkers, etc.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦  

Have you ever tried to live by The Four Agreements? Do you agree with the four agreements? What feelings and situations do you struggle with most in your life? How do you overcome them? 

 

Book Review: Bad Blood

bad-bloodTitle: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Author: John Carreyrou
Genre: Business, True Crime
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication Date: May 21, 2018
Pages: 299
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby App
Date finished reading: March 3, 2019

Goodreads Description: The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of Theranos, the multibillion-dollar biotech startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end, despite pressure from its charismatic CEO and threats by her lawyers.

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley.

My Review: Bad Blood is the fascinating story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup company Theranos. This book is basically a manual on what not do when starting a company. Lessons learned:

  1. Don’t start a company just because you want to become a billionaire.
  2. Start a company in a field you have expertise. If you are creating medical tools, you might need more than two years of science classes at a university.
  3. Using scare tactics is not a great way to win loyalty in your fellow employees.
  4. Don’t believe just any science data – look specifically for peer-review publications that outline extensive research and testing.
  5. Lying about your product is not only morally wrong but could lead to fatalities.
  6. Even if you serve on the board of a fraudulent company and advocate fake technology, you can still get a job as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense.

Journalist John Carreyrou’s research finally led to the closing of Theranos, criminal charges against Elizabeth Holmes, and justice for the individuals and families who suffered because of Holmes and her fake technology. It is still shocking that it took more than a decade to do so. I really wanted the book to include a “where are they now” section. The whole time I was reading this, I kept thinking that it would make a fantastic Hollywood movie. Guest what? It is in fact going to be a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. YES!!!

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ½

Book Club Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

1501151835Title: The Death of Mrs. Westaway
Author: Ruth Ware
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Thorndike Press, Gale Publishing
Publication Date: June 27, 2018
Pages: 368
Format Read: Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Bookstore
Date finished reading: February 9, 2019

Goodreads Description: On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.

Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.

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

My Review: I have read Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Lying Game, and so far The Death of Mrs. Westaway is my favorite. One thing that I have realized about myself as a reader is that I truly enjoy fiction the most when I like the main character or at least some of the characters. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is an endearing main character. Her life and future changed drastically when her mother was killed very suddenly. She was unable to go to college like she had planned and instead took over her mother’s tarot card booth on the touristy Brighton Pier. Through the author’s wonderful descriptions, you really get to understand Hal’s unfortunate circumstances. It is the winter season in Brighton, which means there aren’t a lot of tourists, so business is slow. It also means that it is very cold. With very little income coming in, Hal has barely enough money to buy food, nevertheless heat her small apartment. To add to her unfortunate circumstance, Hal had borrowed money from a loan shark after her mother’s untimely death, and now she is being harassed and threaten to pay the loan back with a significant amount of interest. As a reader, you truly understand Hal’s desperate situation that influenced her decision to take on the identity of granddaughter to the recently departed Mrs. Westaway. Hal’s hope was that she would inherit a small amount of money to help her pay off her debts, live a bit more comfortably, and that no one would find out that she is not Mrs. Westaway’s daughter, but she got far more than she bargained for.

Ruth Ware really knows how to use a setting to increase the intensity of the mystery in her books. In The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware creates this rundown manor, called Trepassen House, as the location where all the characters gather and spend the night after Mrs. Westaway’s funeral. The manor feels dark and full of secrets. The author also uses a fateful snow storm that forces two characters back to Trepassen House and leads to the climatic ending.

I enjoy mysteries that keep me on my toes, where there are so many elements that it is hard to figure out who is friend or foe. As I read The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I wrote down all the questions I had that I hoped would be resolved by the end of the book. Is Hal related to Mrs. Westaway? Who is Hal’s mother? Who is Hal’s father? What happened to Maud? Who is trying to kill Hal? I was pleased that all my questions were answered, though at times I got a bit confused (especially trying to tell the difference between Maud and Maggie).

I enjoyed this latest novel by Ruth Ware and look forward to her next book, The Turn of the Key, which comes out later this year.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

Book Club Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ¾