Monday, July 16, 2007

What Color Are You?

I've always been interested in psychology, so I was excited to read this book that was recommended to me by a friend (incidentally, she and I took Introduction to Psychology together when we were in college). The Color Code, written by Utah psychologist Taylor Hartman, provides a key to understanding the different personality types that exist in all human beings. He insists that all personalities can be divided into four basic types (or colors, using his system): red (driven by power, basically Type A personalities); blue (motivated by intimacy, emotional); white (peacemakers) and yellow (fun-loving, party people). Obviously, he says, people have secondary and mixed colors, but their basic makeups fall into these four categories. I was a little skeptical at first (people are so complex, it should be impossible to categorize them so easily), but his system is surprisingly accurate. I could easily pinpoint red, blue, white and yellow people in my life, and their personalities (in general) were described almost perfectly by Dr. Hartman.

Hartman's point is that by identifying these personality types, we can better understand how to communicate and associate with each other. Also, by finding our own color, we can better understand ourselves and how we relate to other people. With this goal in mind, Hartman provides a test to determine your own color. Then, he goes through each of the colors, listing its strengths and weaknesses. While this was interesting, what I found most fascinating was his analysis of the relationships of people with differing colors. Hartman goes through each color combination, detailing how the colors interact when paired as co-workers, spouses, friends, parent/child, etc. Again, I found his descriptions surprisingly accurate.

The final section of the book (which I found to be the least interesting) focuses on becoming "charactered," or building character by developing positive traits found in colors other than your own. For instance, a Yellow who says, "I'm too fun-loving to work hard - that's just the way I am," is not charactered. A Yellow who says "Yes, I'm fun-loving, but I also discipline myself to finish work before I play," is charactered. Hartman has actually written Color Your Future, which I believe focuses solely on this aspect of his philosophy.

I found Hartman's book riveting. Some of it's a little cheesy (I snickered every time he used the term "rainbow connection"), but I think it's already helped me to understand myself and others a little better. Even if you're skeptical, it's a fun book to read.

If you don't have time to find the book, you can take the personality test for free at http://www.thecolorcode.com/. You do have to create an account there, but you can opt out of receiving mailings from them.

Bohjalian's newest thrills despite cheap finale

So, after staying up all night reading Mary Higgins Clark's new book (see review below), I picked up Chris Bohjalian's The Double Bind, thinking it would be a more leisurely read. I even told my husband, "Don't worry, this one isn't as exciting as the last one. I won't have to stay up all night reading it." Well, guess what? I was wrong. Although it started out slowly, it turned into an extremely compelling book that I was very reluctant to put down.

It tells the story of Laurel Estabrook, a young social worker, who comes across a box of old photos left behind by a homeless man. The photographs were obviously taken by someone with great expertise, and Laurel becomes obsessed with learning how the homeless man went from successful photojournalist to penniless transient. Her search leads her to the Gatsby Family (yes, the Gatsbys, figments of F. Scott Fitzgerald's imagination), where devastating family secrets abound. The obsession takes its toll on Laurel, already emotionally fragile from a vicious attack she suffered several years earlier. Her friends and family are frightened for her, but she refuses to give up her all-consuming quest for the truth. The ending is a shocker (which I won't give away), but it will change the way you view the whole novel.

Like I said before, the first part of the novel was a little slow. Plus, I was thrown off by the inclusion of the Gatsbys in the story (although it makes sense later in the book). I almost abandoned the whole novel, but out of loyalty to Bohjalian, I stuck with it. I'm glad I did, because it turned into a fast-paced, absorbing read. Once I got over Bohjalian's resurrection of the Gatsbys, I enjoyed the search for their deep, dark family secrets. While I didn't stay up all night, I did finish the book in a day, so deeply was I enthralled with Laurel's story.

My only beef with the book is the ending, which is hard to discuss without ruining the surprise. I can only say that it ruined the story for me, because it felt like such a cheap finale. Also, I'm not sure the clues Bohjalian sprinkled throughout the story really were strong enough to support the ending. It's one of those you-either-love-it-or-you-hate-it kind of things.

Despite the ending, I thought The Double Bind was a great read. It also provides an interesting (though somewhat preachy) perspective on homelessness. Pick it up - you won't be disappointed (except, maybe by the ending).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Despite flaws, Mary Higgins Clark still pens a pageturner

I stayed up until 1 this morning finishing Mary Higgins Clark's newest mystery, I Heard That Song Before. I've been reading Clark since junior high, and consider her one of my favorite authors. I know she's not the greatest writer, but she manages to pen pageturners that are exciting, while maintaining a definite PG rating. Still, I have been somewhat disappointed in her last few books, and this one was no exception.

The story focuses on Kay Lansing, a librarian working in Englewood, New Jersey, who finds herself taking a step into her past when she enters the Carrington Family's sprawling estate to ask a favor of its owner, Peter. It's the same mansion where her deceased father once worked as a landscaper. When Peter agrees to work with Kay on a literary fundraiser, the two fall in love and are married after a whirlwind courtship. Kay is happy with the union, but her family and friends are uneasy about her new husband. Twenty-two years ago, Peter was dating Susan Althorp, who was murdered after he supposedly dropped her off at her home. No proof could connect Peter to the crime, but he had still been presumed guilty by the general public. Later, when his wife mysteriously drowned, he again became a "person of interest" in a homicide. Kay believes in Peter, but finds herself in the minority when Susan's body is discovered on the Carrington's property. Once again, Peter is at the center of a murder investigation. As the evidence piles up against him, Kay determines to find the real killer. There's no shortage of suspects: Susan's father was angry with her the night she died; could he have harmed his own daughter? Or was it Gary Barr, the temperamental servant, who gets jumpy every time he's interviewed? For Kay, the answer hinges on an argument she overheard in the mansion's deserted chapel when she was six. As Kay tries desperately to make the connection, she finds herself in a race against time to save her husband and herself.

Like I said, Mary Higgins Clark knows how to keep a reader turning pages by focusing almost solely on plot. Her characters are all flat as pancakes, her writing is lifeless (she's the queen of telling, not showing), and her dialogue is stilted and unnatural. Usually, I can overlook these things for a compelling plot, but I Heard That Song Before's storyline is so full of holes it's hard to concentrate on anything else. It starts with Kay's marriage to Peter, which happens so quickly the reader never has a chance to see a relationship develop. Yet, somehow, they are hopelessly in love. It goes on from there, with plot twists that come out of nowhere and myriad loose ends that are never tied up. All this made for a dissatisfying read.

Make no mistake, I still love Clark and will probably read every book she writes until the day she dies. I'm that loyal. However, her last few books have not been up to par on many levels, although somehow they still manage to pull me in and keep me reading way past bedtime.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

We are women, hear us roar


The two books I read in the last couple weeks have a lot in common, although their plots really aren't similar at all. However, both books feature female protaganists who have to overcome insurmountable odds to survive. In both situations, their men have shamefully disappeared, leaving their wives and daughters to fend for themselves. Not only do they manage everything themselves, but they do it with strength, courage and old-fashioned hard work.
Berg's novel features a trio of heroines: Paige Dunn, a young mother who has been paralyzed by polio; Diana Dunn, her teenage daughter; and Peacie, the family's sharp-tongued black caretaker. The men in the book are not all losers, but they definitely lurk in the background while the women take center stage.
The story unfolds in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964. Civil Rights rallies are raging across the state, but Diana is only dimly aware of them. She's got enough problems of her own. There's her mother, for one. Although they have Peacie (another of Diana's problems) during the day, they can't afford to pay a night caretaker, so Diana has to take up the slack, then lie about it to the social worker. Then there's the money issue; no matter how many donations they receive from neighbors, there's never enough cash to go around. Then, Peacie's gentle husband gets caught up in the dangerous Civil Rights movement, Diana's best friend betrays her, and Paige gets a respiratory infection. It's enough to sink anyone, but Diana is determined to hold it all together, even as she resents the whole impossible situation.

What results is a compelling story of triumph over adversity. It also brings up this important, but sticky question: Should a woman who cannot even hold a child be allowed to raise one? The issue of freedom is also central to this novel: Is anyone really free? Who had more freedom in 1964 - a paralyzed polio victim or a black man in the South? It's a fascinating story, although the ending is a little too serendipitous to be believable.
Stormy Weather was less impressive to me, although it was still a decent read. The story revolves around the Stoddard family - a mother and her 3 daughters - who are struggling to survive after their husband/father's ignominious death. Although Jack Stoddard hadn't given them much of a life to begin with, the women miss the meager paychecks he managed to bring in on occasion. After Jack's death, the Stoddards move back to their family's crumbling farm. Not only is the house falling down, but the land itself is difficult to farm after suffering from drought and the severe dust storms that plague Texas in the 1930s. Through sheer determination and a lot of hard work, Jeanine Stoddard (the middle daughter) rebuilds the farm, but it's not enough. Finally, the family places their last hopes and cash on a wildcat oil well and Jeanine's temperamental racehorse.
Although I enjoyed the characters in this novel, I thought the plot dragged too much. This, coupled with Jiles' cold writing style, made the book a long, laborious read for me. The only reason I stuck with it is because the characters were interesting and I wanted to see what happened to the indomitable Jeanine. Of course, she triumphed, but again it was all a little too serendipitous for my taste.
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