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Tuesday, December 08th, 2015 | Author:

My parents and brother just came out to Kansas for Thanksgiving and they drove the last of my earthly possessions here with them. Which means, I finally have all of my books with me again.

As I unpacked the 6 or 8 boxes of books and started to sort them into piles to put on the shelves, a definitive sense of comfort came over me.

My whole life I’ve loved books. I’ve always had more books than I have had toys or anything else.

 

I’m not a fast reader, or a voracious reader by any means. In my adult life, I have to be intentional to spend time reading books because, well, Netflix is easier. But I want to be a reader, I like being a reader, and most of all, what I love about having my books back with me is that I love to SHARE what I’m reading.

I’ve said that for a long time to those who’ve scoffed or smirked at my full arms at used book sales (or my many boxes while moving so many times — which by the way, I sadly now only have about 1/4 if that of the books that I once had do to purging for moves).

I like to own the physical copies of books so that I can tell someone about a book and then offer, “I own it — do you want to borrow it?”

My mom actually even brought a copy of the Kite Runner with her in her suitcase, “I found this and I know that you leant it to me at some point but I think this is your copy.”

“Oh, you can keep it!” I said. “I have another copy right now. I’ve given it away several times to people because it’s so good, so I just bought another copy, so you can keep that one.”

There’s something about sharing the story that makes it even better.

So, as I was looking through my books, I thought I would share some of my favorites with you in case you’re in the mood to read this holiday season and need some suggestions.

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Classics:

Crime and Punishment — I’ll preface it this way: Most Russian novels are long, sad, and have lots of characters so they can be hard to get into. BUT, this is one of my favorite classics. If you’re a sucker for redemption in non-fairy-tale ways, and you want to feel the hardness and sadness of the world along the way to that redemption, read this. Tell yourself at the start that you’re going to read the whole thing. I’ve only read two classics more than once, and this is one of them.

Pride and Prejudice  — If you want something much lighter than C&P, go for P&P. Men, this one is more of a woman’s pleasure (though if you like witty banter and well-told angsty love stories, please do read). “What are men to rocks and mountains?” Elizabeth Bennet asks. I ask that every time I climb a mountain. It’s a fun one, a great one. And it’s the other classic I’ve read more than once.

Brave New World — If you read 1984 and loved it, read this, it’s better. If you read 1984 and hated it, you might not love this, but again, this is better. If you read the Hunger Games or the Giver and loved it, go ahead and read a dystopian novel actually written for adults and see how much better they are. Still compelling. Still haunting. Still really, really good (and important). It’s a fast read.

Lord of the Flies — Another fast read, and largely a similar premise to the TV show LOST. What happens when a plane full of prep school aged boys crashes on a desert island? Find out. It really is thrilling.

The Old Man and the Sea — If you’ve never read any Hemingway but you want to, (and/or maybe you want to be able to say you have), this book is a great, super short intro to Hemingway. Also, if you love the sea (in a sailor kind of way, not a lay-on-the-beach sort of way), this is gonna be a good one, and much more palatable time-wise than the monster of a book, Moby Dick.

Farewell to Arms — If you’re ready for more Hemingway, I love this book. It’s centered on the story of an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during WWII and it’s painfully good.

 

Plays:

Our Town by Thornton Wilder — You’ll be faced with the thoughts on what matters most in life and death, and what your town, your community means to you.

The Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller — Miller is definitely best known for 1) being married to Marilyn Monroe and 2) being the author of famed plays Death of a Salesman  and The Crucible. But this little known play I stumbled on in a used book sale, and it has haunted me ever since. It’s a short, simple read, that poses the question through the characters: If you could switch places with someone and spare their life by giving yours (in this case for a Jew in Nazi controlled France), would you?

Newer Books that will be Classics soon:

The Kite Runner — I’ve probably given away more copies of this book than any other. The story feels so real, so true, so compelling that I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I was reading it. So many times I went to the author’s bio online to see if this stuff actually happened to him because it was so well written  and such a good, gripping, crazy story. Also, it really helps paint a picture of how Afghanistan changed hands to the Taliban and what that meant for the people on the ground there. Important read and really really good read.

The Things They Carried — This is my favorite book. Period. It’s set in the Vietnam war, told by a character that shares a name with an author, Tim O’Brien, who also served in Vietnam. But throughout the book, the narrator tells you “This is not a true story.” Just when you read something that is so crazy vivid, so specific that you swear this had to have happened for real, the narrator says, “I’m lying to you. This is not a true story.” Read it. It’ll drive you crazy and you’ll love it. It’s that good.

The Life of Pi — A kid and a tiger are on a life boat at sea trying to survive. It’s a story that touches on all the themes of humanity, including sanity. It’s really, really good and easy to get caught up in.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — A kid loses his dad in the 9/11 attacks. He then goes on a secret mission through the burroughs of New York trying to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that his father had. He meets the city through his quest, different people all affected in different ways by the attacks and by life, and also, they meet him. It’ll grip your interest and your heart.

Nonfiction/Comedy

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris — Most of Sedaris’ work is nonfiction essays and they’re all amazing. So read anything by him, and it will all be funny. But this anthropomorphism book is not strictly nonfiction because he uses animals as the personas for his incredibly funny stories, but it’s amazing. And a fast read, too. I read it in two sittings at a Barnes and Noble, and then still bought it because I knew I’d want to re-read it again and again.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs — Jacobs, an agnostic Jew who lives in New York City and writes for Esquire magazine decided to follow the Bible’s laws for a year. All of them. Like even the ones about not sitting where a woman has sat when she’s had her period, or not wearing mixed fabric clothing. What ensues is really funny, really educational, and really eye-opening to christians and others alike.

Into the Wild — This book is the best book I’ve read in the past decade. And it’s the best non-fiction I’ve ever read. Period. John Krakauer delves into the story of a young man who set off into the alaskan wilderness on a quest to find himself and experience nature but who dies while he’s there. Like a detective working backward through the clues, Krakauer, a journalist for Outside magazine, tries to find out what happened and to make sense of it all — for the world, for the young man’s family, but most of all for himself. I saw more of myself in this book than I was comfortable with, and that is always compelling.

Fun Books/Thrilling Books/All Others

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown — I read this book while studying abroad, about to go to Rome (where it’s set) and you actually learn a LOT of true historical information while just reading this thrilling tale of murders, secret society conspiracy, and papal scandal. I read the last third of the book laying on my friend Sara’s bed while she studied and I was so distracting with my exclamations of “WHAT??!!” and “Noooo!” that she made me leave the room. It’s Dan Brown’s best, even still.

Gone Girl — You’ve heard the hype. It’s true. It’s so well written and I did NOT see some of the plot twists coming. I actually listened to this one on audiobook and the version that’s on audible.com is really, really well done.

The Time Traveler’s Wife — Men, disregard probably. Women, um, read this now if you love a good love story. I loved it. Loved  it.

Private by James Patterson — I also listened to this mystery novel on audible.com and would recommend it. Typical but well done murder mystery. Really enjoyable.

The girl with the dragon tattoo/who played with fire /who kicked the hornet’s nest: This trilogy is incredible. I will give you this disclaimer though, the author was Swedish and, like the Russian novels, it has a lot of characters and so it takes a while to pick up steam (and they’re long). I listened to the first one as an audio book on an 8.5-hour drive down to college after a break and the first few hours were slow. But by the time I got to school, I couldn’t stop. The next few days I was listening every single chance that I got until it was finished. The other two books went very similarly.

Happy reading! And if you have book suggestions for me, please fire away!!

 

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015 | Author:

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He must’ve been about 6 years old. His head full of blondish brown curls. He was tall, lanky, apparently even the “slim fit” pants would fall down because of his narrow width.

I was a toddler, about three years old, with baby-fat chubby cheeks, big blue eyes, and blond hair bleached blonder by hours spent outside in the sun. I wore solid colored shorts with elastic bands (as is common for toddlers), and I’d always pull them down to the lowest point possible on my hips. (I don’t know if you knew this, but I liked hip huggers before they were cool. I was pretty hipster.) And I was a hard-core 3-year-old subscriber to the idea that barefoot is best.

Usually though, when I was doing things like riding a bike (with training wheels, because hey, I was a toddler and this is a true story) or a scooter, or rough and tumble things like that, I was required to wear my shoes.

One of our biggest activities as siblings was to climb this big mulberry tree we had in our back yard. We also loved to jump out of the tree. I was allowed to climb the tree barefooted, which really helped feed my desire to become Pocahontas when I grew up, but I was not allowed to jump out of the tree barefooted at this age.

And the same was true for the swings.

My brother Jason and I had this game where we would swing, and instead of just jumping off the swings like children of average talent, we came up with a more elite, challenging twist: One of us would jump off the swing and just as they jumped, the other would yell something that the jumper had to act out before landing.

Example: Jason jumps. I yell, “The Sun!” Jason puts his hands up to his face jazz hand style to display the sun mid-jump, then he lands. Somehow many of the shapes/things we acted out involved a very similar display of flaying arms and legs out to our sides and/or jazz hands. OK, maybe we weren’t above average ability like we thought, but our denial was strong.

One day Jason and I were out swinging barefooted in the afternoon sun, and I suddenly jumped off the swing. “Joanna!” he yelled. Which was weird, because I didn’t have to change my shape at all because I already was a Joanna before I landed.

“What?” I asked once I landed my jump with olympic precision. “Why’d you just say my name?”

“You know you’re not supposed to jump off the swings or out of the trees without shoes on,” he said.

“But I hate shoes.”

“We can play the game, but you have to go inside and put shoes on first.”

“Fine,” I said.

So I went inside and put on my saltwater sandals, knowing that option wasn’t up to par, but thinking I’d try it anyway.

I went back out and said, “Ok, ready!”

“Little girl, those aren’t shoes,” he responded, giving me that sideways glance that big brothers can give, even when they’re skinny bean poles with floppy blond curls.

“But, these still protect my feet,” I retorted.

“Fine, next time you have to wear shoes, though,” he relented.

“Yes! Ok, you jump first!” I said, full of glee at my triumph. I hopped on the swing, and pumped my legs as hard as I could to get up to speed with him.

“Flower!” I yelled as he jumped, and he kept his legs straight like a stem, put his arms out wide with splayed jazz-hand fingers for leaves, and made his face cheery like a flower while he landed.

———————

I’ve always remembered this instance, because it’s the perfect summation of who my big brother has always been to me.

He’s always been my friend and my playmate. But he’s always been there to protect me without inhibiting me as well.

But while he is there to be a voice of reason, a voice of caution, the most important part is the stableness in the fact that he is there.

In the aftermath of my life falling apart, I had one afternoon where I was sitting in my car, up on a hill overlooking the town and the railroad tracks. And it was the only time I have ever legitimately had both the desire and the will to run away. I saw the train coming in at a slow chug, and I thought, “This is it. Just leave your phone, your keys, your purse, everything. Just jump on that train and make a new life from scratch.” I used all of my willpower to force myself to stay in that car until the train passed, because I knew if I opened the door, it would happen. I would run.

As I told my brother and parents about this day about a year later, Jason came to me and hugged me, and said, “I’m glad you didn’t get on the train. I would’ve had to go and search and find you to make sure you were alright.” He said it with a veil of joking in his voice, but his message was real.

Note that he didn’t say he’d have to go find me and bring me home. He said he’d find me to make sure I was alright.

Jason has never tried to dissuade me from one of my various adventures or antics, but he occasionally does voice the helpful thoughts like, “You can jump off the swing, but you should wear your shoes.”

His protection is always selfless. And that’s a trait I have yet to find in anyone else in the world.

I know it’s not easy to watch people you love go off and traipse around the world, and have adventures that will probably turn into crazy stories, but that also have to potential to go wrong.

I know it’s not easy to be the big brother to the fearless three-year-old who will jump from the highest branch, or the galavanting 25-year-old who blows about with the wind. But he does it. Consistently. And he does it well. He has mastered the art of being a loving, protective big brother, while also letting me fly free and being happy for me as I go.

And while I live in different cities and states (and sometimes countries) from him, I still value the times we do get to do life together. Because he was my first best friend, and he’ll be one of my best friends until the end. And there’s something extremely valuable about someone who both tells you to put shoes on, and then jumps off the swings with you. Someone who would track you down when you ran away, not to drag you home, but to make sure you were OK. Someone who loves you like he does.

Happy birthday week to my dear big brother who I squabble with in love, talk to as a friend, and who takes up much more than his share of the couch when we’re watching a movie together as a family. There’s no one quite like you. I love you, Jas.

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If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 


 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com

 

 

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015 | Author:

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We sat in a small, barren classroom with approximately twelve standard table desks, in three rows of four. A green chalk board spans the length of the front wall, and a small wooden podium sits off to the side at the front of the room — it holds handouts and chalk, but it won’t be used as a presentation platform this hour.

There are two dark blue plastic chairs to each table. Students dot the room with their informal, after-lunch presence.

Two girls in the back wear bikinis under their tank tops, either preparing to head to the waves right after class for a surf session, or having just returned from the water.

The table tops hold notebooks, pens, coffee cups and water bottles, snacks and parts of lunches stolen from the caf  — what Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) students and faculty call the cafeteria (always “the caf,” never “the cafeteria”).

The class room is seated on PLNU’s picturesque campus by the sea in San Diego, though the room itself is unimpressive, sitting in the shade by the parking lot, the caf and the music building it’s only view.

This is where Intro to Journalism is held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 1:30-2:20pm in the Fall semester of 2007. The class is led by Dr. Dean Nelson, head of the journalism program at the university, author, journalist with bylines in places such as the New York Times and the San Diego Union Tribune. His students know him by his first name.

Dean would get up, most often wearing khaki slacks, a generic button down t-shirt, and either Vans or Converse shoes, and he would joke with us in brash ways as everyone filtered in. “Alright,” he’d begin, and either launch into a current events quiz (Mondays), an Associated Press Stylebook quiz (Fridays), or just straight into the lesson, either about ways to write an article, ways to get sources, or case studies that teach important journalistic lessons such as ethics, libel, or handling a tough story assignment.

My whole life I’d had this inclination toward English literature and English classes. But I am a painfully slow reader, so I knew I would drown quickly in the workload of a literature student, so I entered college majoring in broadcast journalism. I had experience anchoring, script-writing, videoing, editing, and producing news broadcasts for my middle school, and for our church’s hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana when I was in high school after Hurricane Katrina, so I thought maybe that would be a good fit. That’s how I landed in Dean’s Intro to Journalism class my first semester.

It only took that single class to make me decide to ditch the “broadcast” portion of my major, and to sweep me off my feet into the world of nonfiction writing. I’d been in love with stories told in any medium since as long as I could remember, but aside from the Little House on the Prairie books we read aloud in my young childhood, I didn’t have much experience reading non-fiction. Dean’s class changed all of that. Our assignments were sometimes to read non-storied non-fiction about the techniques of writing, but even those resources were often written with stories entwined. In a swift unveiling, I saw a world of true stories, written as captivatingly as fiction, and I knew I wanted to write like that.

One of the lessons Dean honed in on several times, however, is a writer’s temptation to make a story better than it is by embellishing, creating bias, under-emphasizing, and other tactics that would make the story more compelling or interesting.

I wouldn’t say I’ve struggle with this a lot, but I know that before this class, sometimes as I would tell stories, I might leave out the measuring details, to make something sound more grand. Or I may embellish my already poor skills of estimation. But the more Dean honed in on this lesson, the deeper it embedded its conviction in me.

Dean put it this way, and I’ve always remembered these words: “The truth is interesting enough.”

It is one of my mantras to this day. I’m not always perfect at this. But when I falter, I try to come back (often right away) and correct myself. It’s a matter of integrity as much as it is a matter of accuracy.

It’s the foundation of my assurance in the idea that everyone has a story, and that every story matter.

Because in the midst of photoshopped models, movied plot-lines, and social media platforms that allow us to edit our lives, I want to be someone who continually believes and lives out with conviction the idea that the truth is interesting enough. And if I want my life to be more interesting, it’s up to my living, not my writing, to make it so.

This is real life. We all live it, with its few glamorous and many monotonous moments. And it’s freeing to accept the truth for yourself that the true reality of your life is interesting enough.

 

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 


 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, March 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Eleven years. It’s been 11 years since she died. My older sister. Julie.

Two years ago on my birthday, I wrote a column about celebrating even when it’s hard, and I talked about when my sister died, and the birthdays that followed. In the piece, there was this line: “When my older sister passed away, the timing was really terrible.”

We were at dinner — my older brother, my parents, and me — when I read them my column for that month. When I read that line, they all laughed. I laughed a little when I wrote it. Because it’s true, it was horrible timing when she died. As if death ever comes at a good time, but hers was particularly bad timing.

She died 3 days after her 21st birthday. Two months before graduating college. Three months before her one year wedding anniversary (they’d just purchased a cruise for the occasion). And in the first month following her death we had to celebrate my dad’s birthday, her husband’s birthday, my brother’s birthday, and Easter.

But I was glad that my family laughed at the line. Because that’s what I have begun to see as a sign of healing — being able to call things what they are. Being able to say that the timing was horrible and laugh at how irreverent it sounds and how true it is.

It took us several years as a family to know what to do with our “Julie week” of her birthday and anniversary of death. It was hard to talk about her for a long time. We each processed at different paces, and while some of us wanted to remember, it was too hard for the others. And visa versa other times.

Eventually, though, we ended up creating a sort of tradition when we were all living near one another (I’m the one that lives elsewhere some years, like this year). We get together and go out to dinner at the Olive Garden (her favorite — but give her a break, she was a 21-year-old broke college student/piano teacher. The Olive Garden was a splurge to her) and we tell stories to remember her. Not the stories that were told at the funeral. Those were too nice. Too kosher. For a long time, that’s all we or anyone would do — tell the funeral-appropriate stories. The ones where she seems so much more lovely, and so much less like the girl we grew up with and loved indefinitely not even despite, but with her flaws.

It took several years to find the freedom to remember her more accurately. To laugh at her precociousness, her sometimes judgmental nature, her infuriating stubbornness. To admit that amidst her mounds of talent, she was deeply insecure. To remember her harsh exterior that came out quite a bit, not just the softness that existed underneath, too. To remember the way her long red hairs got EVERYWHERE.  It was literally over a year before I stopped finding her hairs woven into the fabric of my clothes from the laundry.

Again, I think it’s a sign of healing, of acceptance, to be able to laugh. I have this theory that I will teach my children if they are ever bullied — laughing at something takes it’s power away.

And I think for our family, when we were able to finally laugh again at the memories of our sister, it was a sign that we were taking power away from grief. We had to let it run its course. That’s not optional. But finally, we found our way to a place where we could remember what was true.

And with that allowance, it is a double edged sword, because remembering the real Julie, means acknowledging the realness that we loved that we don’t have anymore. It means acknowledging the loss, not of some idealized saint, but of our very real sister who we very real-ly loved.

I think we learned this from my mom. We grew up hearing what I would name the “rascal boys stories” — stories of her and her two brothers while they were growing up. But in the stories, there were two brothers, and in life when we were hearing the stories, there was only one brother. We were missing an uncle. He died before I was born. I only know him from the stories.

But the Uncle Randy I know was deeply troubled and deeply loved. He was a lovable little boy. But he had a lot of problems socially and relationally. He got into trouble. He lived a rough life. But in the stories, I could hear him laughing. I could hear him crying. I could see him be tricked by his brother. And blamed for something his sister did. And I could see him yelling. I could see him getting arrested. I could see him dancing at his wedding. I could see him hitchhiking across the country to his new home in New York. And I could sense how much my mom and her family loved this very real, imperfect man.

I’ve never met him, but because of the stories, I know him a little bit. A non-idealized, real version of him. And because of that, he’s never felt like a story character — he’s felt like family. Real-life, living and breathing, blood and guts family.

That’s my hope as we move onward in this life and we carry the loss with us. That we will continue to choose to tell the stories of real-life Julie. That we will remember her as she was, and laugh at what needs to be laughed at and feel for the things that need to be felt. That we will love her in death the way we loved her in life. Real-ly. Because she was real, and our love for her still is. It is good to remember.

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Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers this week as her birthday is this Wednesday and the anniversary of her death is Saturday. 


 Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon     www.storiesbyJo.com

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below