Let’s Talk by David Crystal

I live for well-written books that explain how the world works and/or give tips on how to build up or improve skills. My latest discovery in this genre is 2020’s Let’s Talk: How English Conversation Works by David Crystal. This slim, well-written volume breaks down the conventions and nuances of conversations in clear, simple language with lots of examples. Here’s how the publisher describes it:

Banter, chit-chat, gossip, natter, tete-a-tete: these are just a few of the terms for the varied ways in which we interact with one another through conversation. David Crystal explores the factors that motivate so many different kinds of talk and reveals the rules we use unconsciously, even in the most routine exchanges of everyday conversation. We tend to think of conversation as something spontaneous, instinctive, habitual. It has been described as an art, as a game, sometimes even as a battle. Whichever metaphor we use, most people are unaware of what the rules are, how they work, and how we can bend and break them when circumstances warrant it.

Crystal does very well at writing out and explaining the hidden, unwritten rules that underlie all our everyday interactions, leading to many ‘aha’ moments while reading that made me say “Wow, we really do do that!” His source materials and examples are particularly compelling, drawn from his 1970s recordings of authentic informal conversations as well as other modern examples. He also makes the text readable and interesting with relatively short chapters and engaging, well-written text. He tends to be academic, delving into the history of conversation in English and using some linguistics jargon (and he also writes his own take on a battle rap) but overall he shares relevant, useful, or interesting tidbits about how people talk to each other.

For me personally, as an English language and literature nerd, this book was fascinating and enlightening; I felt like an extraterrestrial anthropologist studying the communication habits of humanity (and the book’s British English was charming and familiar from my favorite UK shows)! This book would be good for other language or history nerds, social science enthusiasts, those for whom English isn’t their first language (though strong familiarity with the language is helpful), and anyone who enjoys talking to people and/or wants to have better conversations and relationships.

Freaky Friday, Then and Now

When I was younger, one of our favorite movies to watch as a family was Freaky Friday starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. The sass and attitude that both Lohan and Curtis (to say nothing of Mark Harmon) brought to the screen were (and remain) comedy gold. I felt both old and excited recently when I discovered how many iterations of the story there are to discover. Here’s a rundown of how you can laugh your way through some body-swapping action.

Start here: 

Through inter-library loan, you can start with the 1977 original Freaky Friday, based on a book of the same name by Mary Rodgers. This is the classic storyline: thirteen-year-old Annabelle thinks her mother Ellen sure has it easy, and doesn’t understand how hard Annabelle’s life is at all. But then, one hilarious and freaky Friday, she gains a greater understanding and sympathy for her mother after they swap bodies for the day. Hijinks include an out-of-control washing machine, parent-teacher conferences AND losing her little brother.

Then, a walk down memory lane:

Next comes the 2003 film Freaky Friday starring Curtis, Lohan, Harmon, and more comedic geniuses from my childhood. In this version, punk rock guitarist Anna changes her contentious relationship with straitlaced psychotherapist mother Tess after a magic fortune cookie makes them swap bodies…the day before Anna’s band is supposed to have the audition of a lifetime, and Tess is supposed to get remarried! It’s a laugh-a-minute race against the clock, and I doubt I’ll ever really get sick of it.

Gender-bend it!

In 2011, there was a gender-bending take on the concept with The Change-Up, starring Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman as childhood best friends Mitch and Dave who have drifted apart, and now find themselves envying each other’s lifestyles. While Mitch is still single and partying, Dave is an overworked father. After a crazy night and a bit of magic, they wake up in each other’s bodies, and not only have to figure out how to switch back but also discover the truth in the adage “Careful what you wish for…”

Next, a musical reboot:

In 2018, Disney made an updated version of the original story, with a few interesting tweaks. In this musical version of Freaky Friday, mother Katherine and her 16-year-old daughter Ellie are at the most stressful times of their lives, and struggling to see each other’s point of view, when a magic hourglass from Ellie’s late father sends them on a body-swapped adventure. Once again, the next day’s wedding adds urgency to their quest to switch back.

And now, a horror-movie twist!

Originally released in 2020, Freaky is the dark comedy story of Millie, a 17-year-old trying to survive high school, who finds herself the latest victim of the local serial killer The Butcher. The magic of his dagger swaps their bodies, and it’s up to Millie and her friends not only to find a way to switch back before it becomes permanent, but also to survive The Butcher on a killing spree, emboldened by his new innocent and feminine appearance.

Friendshipping by Trin Garritano and Jenn Bane

Most people can agree that making friends as an adult is HARD. Finding time to meet up with people, not to mention knowing what to say when you do, often means a lot of loneliness and ghosting when it comes to adult friendships. If you’re like me, you’ll be thrilled to know that you can stop googling “how to make and keep friends” and just read this great new book: Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends. Written by Trin Garritano and Jenn Bane, the team behind the feel-good podcast of the same name, this is a practical guide to the confusing world of 21st century friendship.

My favorite thing about this book is its clear division into three sections (named in the full title): Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends. Each section features real-life tips and tricks for being the best friend you can be, along with specific questions submitted by their listeners. Full of empathy, their tips and tricks acknowledge that everyone is a little different, which means the tips will need to be customized, AND that making friends is a process, which requires patience. One of the keys to success, according to the authors, is to be kind to yourself through a practice called “metathinking”: listening to your thoughts and questioning whether or not they’re actually true. For example, if you find yourself thinking “I’m so annoying” or “This is going to go badly”, you’d challenge that thought and think carefully about where it’s coming from and what’s more likely to be an accurate statement.

One of the other unexpected gems in this book is the authors’ acknowledgment that sometimes we ARE the problem and need to make realistic changes. They provide tools for the reader to examine their behavior and habits to see if anything toxic or unhelpful is going on, and if the reader does come to the conclusion that their behavior is harming their friendships, the authors encourage them to seek therapy and other assistance. Warmth, inclusion, kindness, and yes, recommending therapy, are big themes in this book.

If you’re struggling with loneliness, want to do better at keeping up with people, are looking to make new friends, or feel like social awkwardness is really getting in your way, you might enjoy reading Friendshipping by Trin and Jenn. And if you love podcasts, check out all their new and archived episodes of the Friendshipping podcast on their website.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

A vital work of queer Latinx fiction, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is full of vibrant culture, real emotions, and the triumph of self-knowledge.

“This stunning debut novel from Thomas is detailed, heart-rending, and immensely romantic. I was bawling by the end of it, but not from sadness: I just felt so incredibly happy that this queer Latinx adventure will get to be read by other kids.” – Mark Oshiro, author of Anger is a Gift

The story centers on Yadriel, a trans boy from a family of brujx, a magical community that lives in a cemetery and takes care of the souls of the dead. Traditionally, brujas focus on healing and brujos help spirits cross over to the afterlife. Unfortunately for Yadriel, his family is very traditional and can’t really accept him as a boy and a brujo, although his magical abilities lie firmly in brujo territory, with no skill for healing. Since his mother passed away, Yadriel’s only sources of support has been his best friend Maritza, a vegan bruja, and his uncle Catriz, whose magic isn’t strong enough to use, and neither of them have been able to convince his father to give him his quinces coming-of-age ceremony, which would confirm his identity in the community as a full brujo. But Yadriel isn’t giving up – he performs the ritual himself, and tries to summon the spirit of his murdered cousin to prove he can release a spirit to the afterlife. Unfortunately, the summoning instead produces Yadriel’s classmate Julian, the resident bad boy who isn’t going into the afterlife without knowing exactly what happened and tying up his loose ends. Without many options, Yadriel agrees to help, only to find that the more time he spends with Julian, the less he wants him to leave. In the meantime, Yadriel and his family must still find out exactly how and why his cousin was murdered, all before Dia de los Muertos, Yadriel’s first chance to see his mother since her death.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and I appreciated the steady pacing that kept the plot moving and new revelations every few pages. The portrayal of the rich culture was fascinating and informative, and the characters and their relationships were realistic with emotional pathos. Moreover, the depiction of being trans in a conservative family was heart-wrenchingly real. I definitely think this is a groundbreaking work, and an excellent read for anyone who either identifies with or wants to build understanding for Latinx culture and/or trans identity.

ICYMI: 2021 Honorees from ALA’s Rainbow Round Table

Every year, the American Library Association (ALA)’s Rainbow Round Table (RRT) releases booklists which honor quality publishing on LGBTQ topics. The Rainbow Book List collects titles for children and teens, and the Over the Rainbow Book Lists (Fiction and Poetry, Nonfiction) collect titles for ages 18+. In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the three lists, released earlier this year.

Rainbow Book Listsee the full list here

The Every Body Book by Rachel E. Simon and Noah Grigni (juvenile non-fiction): an inclusive guide to bodies, gender, relationships, puberty, families, and more.

Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit by Lilliam Riviera (juvenile fiction): in the 1960s, a hotel detective in training investigates a missing swim cap during the filming of a movie at the hotel, with the help of many entertaining characters including her parents, a Hollywood megastar, the hotel’s official detective, and Goldie’s crush Diane.

Troublemaker for Justice by Jacqueline Houtman, Michael G. Long, and Walter Naegle (middle grade non-fiction): details the life of Bayard Rustin, a lesser-known figure in the civil rights movement whose work was repressed because of his sexual orientation.

Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass (middle grade fiction): a young figure skater sorts through gender identity while preparing for a big competition.

Queerfully and Wonderfully Made: A Guide for LGBTQ+ Christian Teens edited by Leigh Finke (YA non-fiction): a compassionate and informative guide to living an authentic and fulfilling LGBTQ life in Christian community.

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett (YA fiction): when her family plunges into sleeping sickness unexpectedly, Ekata finds herself thrust into the role of duke, marrying her brother’s warrior bride and struggling to wield her family’s magic and power.

Over the Rainbow Book List, Top 10 – see the full fiction and poetry list here and the non-fiction list here

Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America by R. Eric Thomas: a collection of biographical essays on being an outsider in many arenas of life.

Homie: Poems by Danez Smith: highlights the struggles of modern queer life and the ways they’re counterbalanced by the saving grace of friendship.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: an emotional novel about an African-American gay man coming to terms with his identity in the context of his university community.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri: a collection of stories highlighting the longing for home, representing a broad spectrum of characters and situations.

A History of my Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt: a memoir of coming-of-age in a First Nation community exploring memory, gender, shame, and more.

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels: the story of a man coming back to his hometown to live out the final days of his battle with AIDS.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir by Jenn Shapland: a chronicle of the author’s journey into the life and living spaces of noted author Carson McCullers.

What’s Your Pronoun: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron: a historical look at the evolution and usage of gender neutral personal pronouns, with recommendations for best and most sensible usage today.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: a story of queer women, historical and modern, and the eerie goings-on that threaten them all at an all-girls’ school.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen: a comprehensive look at the diverse world of asexual individuals and experiences, with insight into the ways asexuality can and should reform societal values around sex and relationships.

What If? and How To by Randall Munroe

One of the best things that’s come out of 2021 for me so far is finding a new favorite nonfiction author: Randall Munroe. Although I’m an amateur at best in the field of science, I never get tired of learning fascinating scientific facts and explanations, and I’m always a sucker for a dry sense of humor. For me, Randall Munroe reads like Andy Weir’s The Martian – my all-time favorite book. Here are two of Munroe’s books, both recent and not-so-recent, that sum up his style AND are great reads.

What If? by Randall Munroe is a big, ambitious book, packed with humor, science, and fascinating imagined scenarios. You may know Randall Munroe from Thing Explainer – see Brenda’s great post about it here. In brief, Munroe is the creator of a webcomic and website devoted to answering people’s wildest questions with real scientific consideration. In What If? he gathers the biggest collection of these questions and their answers in one place – including relevant cartoons and a collection of the most weird and worrying questions he’s received through the website. From the publisher: “His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, and often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.”

 

How To is his latest publication, from 2019. In it, he gives impractical, complicated, scientific instructions for how to deal with real-world problems, including everything from landing a plane, digging a hole, predicting the weather, and disposing of the book once you’re done with it (although in this last case, we’re going to have to insist you dispose of it by returning it in the drop box). As always, the text is accompanied by his simple and amusing cartoons and a good dose of dry humor. From the publisher: “By exploring the most complicated ways to do simple tasks, Munroe invites us to explore the most absurd reaches of the possible and helps us better understand the science and technology underlying the things we do every day.”

As Brenda mentioned in her post about Thing Explainer, books by this author are a great read if you’re a fan of science, like a humorous style, or have a deep curiosity about the world and how things work. If you’re looking for an author to expand your mind, indulge your inner geek/daredevil, and make you laugh, I recommend you try a book by Randall Munroe.

The Great Outdoors: Spring Idea Books

As the weather starts to get warmer, I start itching to get outside, not only to walk (you might remember I’ve rhapsodized about walking in the past) but also to take pictures (I especially love a good nature scene) and just frolic! I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re in the same boat, given the year we’ve all had. Today I’m recommending some books to how to enjoy the outdoors as spring dawns, and so my first pick is this 2020 book: Photo Basics by Joel Sartore. Published by National Geographic, it gives great ideas on how to capture great images indoors and out; perfect for flowers poking out of the melting snow or late afternoon sunlight.

If you’re like me and you take photos while walking out in nature try these: Great Iowa Walks, an oldie but a goodie, giving some ideas of walks you can take in the state; or, in the same spirit, try Biking Iowa for bike-friendly trail rides. For quick getaways, try Great Iowa Weekend Adventures by Mike Whye or the Iowa Curiosities guidebook, available both in print and on Overdrive. To find Quad City-specific trails and adventures, check out qctrails.org for an interactive map and robust search experience.

If you’re looking to branch out and take a backpacking trip, you might like Backpacker Hidden Gems: 100 Greatest Undiscovered Hikes Across America, highlighting less-known hiking trails all across the country, or the more local Best Easy Day Hikes Cedar Rapids: Including Iowa City and Cedar Falls/Waterloo. But either way, you may want to take along Be Prepared: Hiking and Backpacking by Karen Berger. More of a cyclist? Take your bike off-road with Mountain Bike Master by Mark Langton.

If you want to focus on an urban/suburban fitness aspect, you could try Walking for Fitness by Nina Barough, or Bicycling Bliss by Portia Masterson. Don’t feel your stamina is up to going outside just yet? Ease into the outdoors with a DVD walking workout like Walk Strong: Burn Fat and Have Fun. If you’re looking for a lifestyle overhaul focused on walking and the outdoors, try The Finnish Way by Katja Pantzar.

Get the whole family involved with 101 outdoor adventures to have before you grow up by Stacy and Jack Tornio. For a deeper dive into camping and fun outdoor skills, try How to Play in the Woods by Robin Blankenship, Born to Explore by Richard Wiese, or I Love Dirt by Jennifer Ward. You could also start a family garden with Plant, Sow, Make & Grow by Esther Coombs. Then, take it to the next level with The New Gardener’s Handbook by Daryl Beyers.

Whatever activity or method you choose, don’t forget to get outside this spring! Between the vitamin D in sunlight, energizing physical activity, and opportunities for togetherness, the benefits are many and the risks are few. Any of these titles will give you a place to start, but do whatever works for you and brings you joy.

Beginners by Tom Vanderbilt

I love lifelong learning! One of my most important values in life is curiosity, because of the way it empowers me to seek out and discover all the wonders and fascinating things going on in the world. For that reason, Tom Vanderbilt’s book Beginners was right up my alley.

In this memoir/investigation, Vanderbilt tells the story of the year he spent learning new skills, just for the sake of it, alongside the research from psychology and science on how learning works as an adult. Motivated by his daughter and his own feelings of stagnation, Vanderbilt took on 5 new, notoriously difficult learning paths: chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling. The experiment leads him to experiences funny, frightening, and fascinating, underscored by research which suggests being this kind of adult beginner can have real benefits. From the publisher: “Ultimately, he shares how a refreshed sense of curiosity opened him up to a profound happiness and a deeper connection to the people around him–and how small acts of reinvention, at any age, can make life seem magical.”

That last sentence is my favorite, because I think everyone (myself included) could use more feelings of magic and possibility these days. One thing I really liked was how strongly he argued that this type of learning is good for EVERYONE, detailing all the potential benefits and solutions to common objections. For instance, he emphasized that the problem of childcare could become a solution by learning a new skill WITH your child, or using your time waiting for your child to finish an activity/practice/school day by practicing your own new skill. He also cited significant evidence that proves it really is never too late, you’re never too old, to learn something new, and in fact you’ll be much better off for it. His main point is actually one of my life’s mottoes (gleaned from a very wise professor): if it’s good for kids, it’s good for everybody. Yes, kids benefit from learning new skills, but so do adults, so don’t stop learning!

If you’re looking for interesting science, a feel-good story, and inspiration that it’s never too late, try reading Beginners. If you’re still not convinced that learning a new skill is for you, try reading this book anyway just for the chapter on babies and how they learn – guaranteed to warm the heart of parents and those who love kids!

Great Podcasts: Think Deeply

Most of the time, I want a podcast that’s going to make me laugh or tell me an interesting story (or preferably, both) but sometimes I want a podcast that’s mindful, thoughtful, and helps me see things in a new way. Here are a few podcasts to try if you’re looking for a moment of gentle profundity, or insight.

Poetry Unbound (or any of the On Being family of podcasts) is a particularly beautiful place to start, in my opinion. In Poetry Unbound, poet Padraig O Tuama reads a poem and offers insight into what the poet may be saying (about life, being human, etc.) before reading the poem a second time. A great podcast for feeling calm and profound. Other podcasts from On Being include the eponymous On Being, Becoming Wise, and This Movie Changed Me, all on the same theme of life’s meaning and personal transformation and insight.

For a print version of this podcast, try The Poetry Remedy, edited by William Sieghart, or for a timely collection, Together In A Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn.

If you’re looking for a podcast that makes you think and helps you rest, but also teaches you something new, you may like 99% Invisible. This popular podcast focuses on the design, architecture, and infrastructure which underlies our daily lives but all but completely escapes our notice. Aiming to help you see the world differently, it’s accompanied by a print book, The 99% Invisible City, by the show’s creator Roman Mars.

And of course, there are also podcasts to help you start a meditation and mindfulness practice, such as Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris. This podcast features guests, insights, and advice into how to live a more mindful life. Accompanying the audio insights is Harris’ 2014 book 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.  For a more practical, advice-based book, see Harris’ Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert

Spoiler alert: as far as romance novels go, I’m not a huge fan of what’s called the “enemies to lovers” storyline. To me, strong dislike is an odd and unlikely foundation for a relationship, so the story always feels implausible and vaguely annoying (yes, this includes Beauty and the Beast). That preference of mine still holds true in the case of Conventionally Yours by Annabeth Albert: the protagonists start off as enemies, and I don’t really care for it. However, the book has a lot of other things going for it which balance that part out.

Conventionally Yours is the story of Conrad and Alden, who have been playing the card game Odyssey in the same group for several years. They don’t get along: Conrad thinks Alden is arrogant and uptight, Alden thinks Conrad is a bit of a slob skating by on charisma. It doesn’t help that they’re the group’s two best players, constantly butting heads over the game. Unbeknownst to each other, they’re both going through a hard time when the book opens, each in great need of a miracle. The miracle comes when they’re given the chance to go to a big convention for Odyssey fans and play in a tournament which gives the winner a big boost of fame and a cash prize, not to mention the chance to become a professional player. The only catch: the convention is on the other side of the country, and to get there, they have to drive…together. As the miles roll on, they find themselves getting a better understanding of each other, and a genuine connection blooms. But the tournament can only have one winner, and the stakes are high for both of them – can their fragile new relationship survive?

Even though I don’t care for “enemies-to-lovers” romances, this book does include lots of other things I love: lots of diverse representation, realistic emotional stakes, cute illustrations, and homages to the world of fandom and fanfiction (where “there was only one bed” remains a beloved plot device). The characters are well-rounded and likeable, the romance is sweet, and the portrayal of gaming, fandom, and LGBTQ friendship is loving and on-point. If you’re looking for a feel-good read, and like some of these tropes more than I do, I definitely recommend trying Conventionally Yours.