Before I read STORIES THAT STICK (subtitled How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business)on a flight to Scotland for an 8-day tour, I thought I knew pretty much everything I needed to about storytelling.  I mean, I’ve studied and taught narrative writing for years.  I’ve written dozens of stories and told hundreds.  I know storytelling is important.

I didn’t know how important.

Kindra Hall clarifies the value of storytelling in ways I have never seen before.  Though largely pitched to her corporate clientele, her book could also be read as a guide on how to become a more interesting person.

On my trip, I was lucky enough to see her engaging and practical ideas in action. 

From the moment I met our tour guide, Jodie A. Stalker (Yes, that is her real name, and no, I’m not changing it because she is hilarious and brilliant and deserves all of the recognition she can get), it was clear to me that even if she hadn’t read this book yet, she already understood its lessons on how storytelling can captivate and motivate an audience.  For example, I’ve never been curious about Mary, Queen of Scots before, but (or as Jodie would say, as a complete sentence, “But!”) once Jodie began narrating the story of Mary’s life, I could not shut my eyes, no matter how drowsy I felt on the tour bus after a hearty lunch that involved a giant scone topped with whipped cream and jam.  Jodie’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (which included Lady Macbeth “going slappity-slap-slap” to persuade Macbeth to murder Duncan) was priceless, and the contrast with Macbeth’s and Duncan’s true stories (also told with wit and aplomb) became stickier as a result.

At one point, Jodie handed us off to another guide, a woman apparently trained in guiding that was more descriptive than narrative.  She was lovely and earnest.  But!  I found myself looking around, wondering where the stories were.

Anyway, back to the book: I love how Ms. Hall frames stories.  They’re not “Beginning, Middle, End,” but “Normal, Explosion, New Normal”— a great solution for writers who’ve wrestled with the question: “What happens in the middle?”

My New Normal will involve stories.  Lots and lots of stories.

PS—Many thanks to Sandy Gingras for this recommendation.  And to Jodie A. Stalker for modeling the behavior, as we say in the field of education.

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HELLO BEAUTIFUL by Ann Napolitano

I was curious about HELLO BEAUTIFUL after I read the funny New York Times article about how Oprah Winfrey called the author to let her know she’d loved it.  Ann Napolitano’s reaction was priceless. “While she was reeling from the news, Winfrey launched into a series of questions about her writing process: ‘In that moment I was like, This is mean! That Oprah Winfrey thinks she can call you and expect you to have an intelligent conversation with her with no warning!’”  Her humanity as much as Oprah’s endorsement made me want to check it out.

From the first page, this novel is completely engrossing.  It reminded me of the National Book Award-winning THREE JUNES by Julia Glass for its longitudinal approach to a family (covering 1960-2008), ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy for its cinematic flow, and so many other great books that explore the human condition with empathy, compassion, and poignancy.  The shifting third-person limited point of view piques and satisfies our curiosity in a way that is simply ingenious.

I won’t spoil it by discussing the plot.  You should just read it.  Oprah was right.

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ATOMIC HABITS by James Clear

            “You do not rise to the level of your goals.  You fall to the level of your systems.”  One morning when I heard Brené Brown quote James Clear from his book ATOMIC HABITS, I thought, That is SO TRUE.  I should read that book.

            But I had already read at least three good books on how to form habits (THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg, reviewed here; PRACTICE PERFECT by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, reviewed here; and SWITCH by Chip & Dan Heath, reviewed here), so I thought, How many books on habits does one person need to read?

            Four.  The answer is four.

            What pushed me over the edge was listening to Brené’s 2-part interview of James (Part 1 here; Part 2 here), in which he tells his story and explains his four “laws” for how to create good habits and break bad ones.  For example, the 3rd law is “Make It Easy.”  One way to do that is to use “the Two-Minute Rule.”  He advises: “Downscale your habits until they can be done in two minutes or less.”  The idea is that if it doesn’t take long, you are more likely to do it and become hooked.

            Which is why his story begins with these words: “On the final day of my sophomore year of high school, I was hit in the face with a baseball bat.”

            If that doesn’t make you want to keep reading, I don’t know what will.

            And now, in accordance with “The 4th Law: Make It Satisfying,” which recommends using reinforcement (“Give yourself an immediate reward when you complete your habit”), I’m going to fix myself a nice slice of pumpkin pie.  With extra whipped cream.  #HabitCompleted

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NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT by Annabel Monaghan

As much as I love reading escapist romantic comedies, it isn’t often that they keep me up past 10pm.  I prize my sleep, and besides, rom coms tend to be so formulaic that you know what is going to happen, so there is no point in losing sleep over them.

Annabel Monaghan’s debut adult novel, NORA GOES OFF SCRIPT, keep me turning pages until 1:00am.  It’s what Hollywood calls a “high-concept” premise: Imagine you write a screenplay about the breakup of your marriage and People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” comes on-location to your house to play the part of your ex-husband.  Imagine further that he asks to stay an extra week in your back cottage.

The surprise here is not that Nora falls in love with Leo Vance or even that he falls in love with her, it’s about what happens NEXT.

That’s all I will say.

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In November of 1964, my mother, a home economics teacher in New Jersey, informed her principal that she was expecting a child (me) in May.  She wanted to provide enough notice so he could hire someone to take her place for the last month of school.  He nodded and told her that when the marking period ended in two weeks, she would no longer have a job.  She was fired.

Unfortunately her experience was not unusual for that time period.  In the 1960s and into the 1970s, state laws limited women’s rights and protections in many ways.  For example, in Connecticut, using birth control was illegal until 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that prohibiting birth control violated a couple’s right to privacy.  Unmarried women could not purchase contraceptives in Massachusetts until the Supreme Court overruled that in 1972.  Nationally, until the Fair Credit Opportunity Act passed in 1974, women could not get a credit card unless a man co-signed for it.

When my mother was growing up, women’s career options were presented like a multiple-choice question: you could become a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher.  And you were expected to stay at home once you had children.  Women who were able to advance academically and pursue other careers faced discrimination and unequal pay. PS, they still do: In 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers.

Bonnie Garmus’s witty and propulsive debut novel, LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY, brings all of this up.  She captures women’s experiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s by shining a bright light on the challenges faced by the main character, Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant, passionate chemist who engages in daily battles to do her work, much less be recognized for it.  Her life becomes even more difficult when her lover, Calvin Evans, dies and Zott learns that she is pregnant as a result of contraceptive failure.  Surrounded by a wise cast of characters including her five year-old daughter, Mad, and her dog Six-Thirty (whom Zott teaches more than 900 words), Zott, who is nothing if not relentlessly candid, makes some surprising decisions and shows the power of fighting for what is right.

This book is by turns hilarious, knowing, and although based in the past, still terribly relevant for our times.

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PARADISE GIRLS by Sandy Gingras

Every once in a while, you are lucky enough to read a book that makes you feel grateful that it was written.

The publishing industry being what it is, this remarkable novel by Sandy Gingras (full disclosure: a dear friend) whose cover features a woman and a young girl walking on a beach is being released in early July and will likely be praised as “a great beach read” or “a great summer read.”  But it is SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.

Yes, it is set in Florida at the “Low-Key Inn,” and some events take place on beaches, kayaks, and motor boats.  There is a swimming pool with a dolphin fountain.  People wear flipflops and sun screen lotion.  And yes, it takes place during a vacation (actually around Christmas), so you can call it a beach read if you want.  But please know that the characters are more profoundly drawn and more thoughtful and reflective than those we typically find in a “beach read.” 

Beginning with Mary Valley, a 40-something writer for home magazines who realizes she has lost touch with what “home” means, this book—which is both poignant and witty—shows us the hearts of characters who are both lost and endearing.  After Mary’s boyfriend/boss tells her he plans to spend Christmas with his ex and she decides to book a trip to a hotel on the edge of the Everglades, we find ourselves folded into the lives of Mary’s estranged daughter, CC, and Larkin, her adorable granddaughter, as well as Daniel, a man who lost his son in Afghanistan, and Ollie, the hotel owner who may lose her hotel, and Al, the business man who lost his wife and daughter in a fire.  And we find ourselves loving ALL of them.  While these people might have good reasons to be depressed, they keep fighting for their lives.

The book jacket notes: “This is the tale of how wounded people can help each other heal, how lost people can help each other find their way home.  How life can become a love story.”  Yes.  This book is all that and more.  It’s truly a gift.

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BOOK LOVERS by Emily Henry

One thing I love about books is that they provide a guaranteed avenue for escape when day-to-day life feels too pressing.  Some people go for mysteries and the allure of getting lost in a detective’s life.  I’m more of a rom-com fan myself.  Which is why I enjoyed Emily Henry’s latest novel, BOOK LOVERS, so much.  It’s a rom-com that plays in the field of publishing (the main characters are an agent and an editor), so it’s a win-win.  This is Ms. Henry’s third book (and her best so far, IMHO), and it moves quickly.  Her trademark witty banter is delightful and engaging—in fact, it’s almost suspenseful (as in, What funny things will they say to each other next?).

The premise is that while Hallmark movies often end with the guy falling for the small-town girl and leaving his cold, bitchy, big-city girlfriend behind, this book wants to know: What is that supposedly cold girlfriend really like?  What is HER story?  Why IS she such a workaholic?  Can she find love, too?

All good questions that inquiring minds want to know.  And whether you’re lounging on a beach chair to soak up the sun or snuggling under a comforter on a rainy day, the answers are worth the trip.

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While many people are struggling these days—and have been for months and months, really—so many are still fighting the good fight and trying to do good things.  We live in difficult times, and sometimes it’s hard to find joy or to even believe that you deserve to feel joy when so much is not right with the world.  That is why I’m recommending Karen Walrond’s latest book, THE LIGHTWORKER’S MANIFESTO.  I know so many good people doing great work in the world who would find comfort and helpful ideas in this book.  The subtitle raises the question that it answers: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy.  Yes.  We would like that.  Every day.

No matter what you do, or what you hope to do, there is something in this book for you.  Karen Walrond begins by reflecting on Victor Frankl’s ideas about the connection between meaning and joy—namely, that doing something significant, caring for others, and summoning courage during difficult times leads to meaning, and meaning leads to joy.  Take a moment to think about that.

This book builds on that notion, layering stories with strategies and tips for how to do these things that lead to joy.  So you should read it.  With a pen in your hand, and a journal by your side.

Posted in Creativity, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, Inspirational, Nonfiction, Self-help, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

THE LAST AMERICAN MAN by Elizabeth Gilbert

“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.  By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow.  When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week.  When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten.

“This move occurred in 1977, by the way.  Which was the same year the film Star Wars was released.”

Thus begins Elizabeth Gilbert’s enthralling account of the life of a truly fascinating human being.  Although Gilbert is better known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she probably earned the advance for that book because in 2002, The Last American Man was a National Book Award Finalist in nonfiction.  If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to “live off the land” and truly appreciate nature, this book takes us into the life of a man who actually does that.  Eustace Conway is passionate, energetic, hyper-focused, and incredibly skilled.

How he develops all of these qualities and yet, like many of us, is still not satisfied with his life, is what makes this book worth reading.

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With the exceptions of my mother’s strawberry shortcake and Carvel’s ice cream cake, I am not much of a cake fan, so the idea of watching people bake cakes on TV has never appealed to me despite some friends’ exhortations that I didn’t know what I was missing.  That said, you absolutely do not need to have watched The Great British Bake Off to appreciate how brilliantly it is portrayed in this hilarious rom-com (which, if any producers are reading, would make a great movie).

The eponymous Rosaline Palmer is a single mother who dropped out of med school to have her daughter, and while her judgy parents don’t approve of her career path, she believes participating in a national baking competition will solve her problems.  She meets two men who draw her attention, and she ends up learning important lessons about herself.  I just realized that this paragraph sounds super-serious, and that is probably why I enjoyed this book so much: it’s both serious and laugh-out-loud funny.

Just ask the people on the train with me, who wondered why that crazy lady was chortling so hard.

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