fault in our starsI don’t want to say “You have to have been living under a rock not to have read/seen/heard of The Fault in Our Stars” because heaven knows I am frequently unaware of popular things, current fads, or even world-changing news at times (plus it is a little unkind to say that to someone anyway). But The Fault in Our Stars is colossally popular. It was even first mentioned on this blog two years ago by our wonderful JP. And, though I have yet to see the movie (sorry, Nerdfighteria, I promise as soon as it makes it to DVD, I’m there), I have read the book and laughed and cried through the amazing story of Hazel Grace and Augustus.

But what is the appeal? Why has a love story about two teenage cancer patients struck a chord in so many people? (It really is much more than a love story between two teenage cancer patients, but I can’t go into it without giving too much away.) I think (aside from the fact that the writing and the characters are humorous, honest, heartbreaking, smart, and realistic), the book’s popularity has a lot to do with how much cancer still looms in people’s lives. I’ve rarely met a person whose life hasn’t been touched by cancer in some way or another. Additionally, according to the CDC, cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and, according to the WHO, lung cancers are the #4 killer in the world.

But why is this ancient beast (The American Cancer Society cites the first recorded description of cancer from Egypt at about 3000 BC) still plaguing us after so many years and so much research? Cancer certainly gets a lot of attention. For example, in FY2013, The National Cancer Institute’s budget was $4.8 billion. And there are numerous cancer research programs throughout the world. Even HCLS carries four periodicals devoted to cancer alone, and there are over 1,200 books in our collection dealing with this topic. But cancer continues. Is it really the result of a fault in our stars?

this star won't go outWell, maybe it’s a fault in our cellsThe National Cancer Institute states: “Cancer is a term used for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues.” Or maybe it’s a fault in our blood or lymph systems since it “can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems.” Or maybe cancer is a fault in our genes as the American Cancer Foundation points out how certain risk factors that run in families and abnormal gene function can also play a role in cancer.

Maybe, however, we should stick with blaming our stars after all; The National Cancer Institute points out that cancer “is not just one disease but many diseases,” and with many possible causes. These causes and risk factors can include: chemical and environmental elements (including food content and radiation exposure), genetics, hormonal changes, infectious agents, exposure to the sun(!), tobacco use, weight, and physical activity levels, just to name a few without getting too in depth. We might as well blame the stars (not just the sun, but all of them) since some factors we can control, some we can’t, and Fortuna’s mood seems to come into play more than we’d like. No wonder cancer remains a provocative topic; it truly can come out of no where and change everything.

Alas, cancer is still very much a reality in the world, and I think we all hope for a day when it’s not. The Fault in Our Stars treats a frightening topic with care but without a sugar coating. Sometimes just a sense of mutual understanding can provide great comfort. And I feel this book has touched many hearts; it certainly did mine. If it touched your heart too, you may want to check out This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl, a collection of works from the brave, young lady who was one of the inspirations for The Fault in Our Stars.

Joanne Sobieck-Lingg is glad to blog about her many, disparate interests (though expert in none, except maybe parenthetical asides). In past lives, she was a writer, proofreader, editor, project manager, teacher, and even co-coordinator of a certain health blog. She has been happily ensconced among the fiction and teen books at the Central Branch of HCLS since 2003.

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self healingMusic gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. ~ Plato, ~400 BCE

Every sound in our environment affects our minds and bodies.

Consider a warm evening with crickets chirping outside your open windows and distant passersby murmur quietly. You’re well on your way to sleep, when a car’s brakes screech, followed by a discordant crash and angry shouts. The tranquility you were experiencing is gone, affected by sounds in the environment.

Music has a profoundly positive effect on the mind and body. Music helps us to concentrate, wakes us up or helps us to sleep, excites or calms us. And people used it for social bonding—in religion or love, or for mind-altering experiences such as war dances, since before time began. Anyone who has rocked out at a concert or flipped on the radio to your favorite music station knows that we are still using and enjoying music today.

Scientists have recently identified the ways that music changes the state of the body. The levels of the brain chemicals dopamine and the endorphins rise; the pupils dilate, antibodies increase (with their protective role in the immune system). In the brain, music activates the amygdala (involved in processing emotion) and prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making).

These chemical changes explain why music is so appealing. With an increase in the brain chemical dopamine, anxiety decreases and depression lifts. Research has found that music is as effective as medication in decreasing presurgical anxiety. Even sick premature babies respond well to the playing of music. People listening to music at the gym showed improvements of 15% in their endurance and workouts, and coronary disease patients boosted cognitive and verbal skills while exercising.

So, the pleasure of listening to music is an important part of a balanced wellness program. What kind of music is best? Whatever you like! Pick your favorite music, make a playlist, and “medicate yourself with music.”

Jean has been working at Howard County Library System’s Central Branch for nearly nine years. She walks in the Benjamin Banneker Park whenever she gets a chance.

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think like a freakStep up to the “retrain your brain” challenge. When the authors of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, offer to share their unique insight into decision making, seize the opportunity. “Readers seemed to think no riddle was too tricky, no problem too hard, that it couldn’t be sorted out. It was as if we owned some proprietary tool – a Freakonomics forceps, one might imagine – that could be plunged into the body politic to extract some buried wisdom,” write Levitt and Dubner in their new book, Think Like a Freak. Experts on how to look at data differently, Levitt and Dubner have inspired readers to abandon preconceived notions and embrace nontraditional analysis of economic, political and social phenomena. I recall a fascinating question the authors had posed in their first book: Is it true that one’s name plays a part in determining one’s destiny in life? Thanks to Freakonomics, readers gained understanding of the significance of baby name selection. We learned what names tell us about parenting, economic mobility, and social stereotyping. I am ready to be a Freakonomics insider and exercise a similar approach to my own world.

Levitt and Dubner take us behind the scenes of their research techniques. They explain how to find the most useful questions, understand the data we use to answer the questions and apply effective techniques to implement a solution. Their ideas can be implemented in analyzing personal as well as global issues. When thinking about solving a problem, consider how a “freak” would do it. Do not think “right” way vs. “wrong” way. Instead, be conscious to seek out new information. Do not be satisfied with data that merely confirms a bias you already have. Be wary of traditional wisdom. Distinguish between correlation and causality. Persevere to find the root cause and do not settle for the proximal cause.

Freaks realize the importance of recognizing and acknowledging what they don’t know. Admitting you don’t know an answer not only takes the pressure off, it allows you to seek out the information needed to make a successful decision. Besides, to gather useful information, you have to ask the right questions…to know what you don’t know. Take your time and dissect a problem by asking and answering small questions. Levitt and Dubner argue that few problems are solved through focusing on just one big question. 

Thinking like a freak requires we accept that humans are motivated by incentives. As we train ourselves to use the brain of a freak, we learn that the majority of people make decisions that value personal gain over the greater good. This is not a negative statement, rather it is an insight that helps us understand how people think. Knowing this, we then use the power of reward as we work toward our goal. A freak also knows that data-accurate stories motivate people. The power of a telling a good story is, in part, enticing the listener to put him/herself in the other person’s shoes. The other part is including data to focus the listeners’ attention on facts. 

Freaks maintain their ability to think like children. They avoid the constraints of prejudice and willingly confront even the most obvious assumptions. As Levitt and Dubner point out, proof of this concept is that children are more skilled than adults at figuring out magic tricks. This is because, unlike adults, kids are not set in their ways and burdened by presumptions. Also like children, freaks are not afraid to have fun. Why suffer while you study when you can enjoy the journey instead?

I invite you to further explore Think Like a Freak. Learn intriguing skills such as teaching a garden to weed itself. Analyze whether knowing when to quit is just as important as deciding to proceed. Become a Freakonomics insider.

Cherise Tasker is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the Central Branch and has a background in health information. Most evenings, Cherise can be found reading a book, attending a book club meeting, or coordinating a book group.

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Reserve this item at Howard County Library SystemMoving can be one of the most fun (yet daunting) tasks a person ever has to face. You have to research until you find the desired new home, go through all of your belongings, and pack. The stress starts early and lasts until you’re fully settled in your new place.

I recently moved into a new apartment with a close friend. I thought the search was the tough part- and then, came the packing. I have a lot of stuff. A LOT of stuff. When I started tearing apart my closet, I found school assignments from elementary school. I felt like a hoarding mother with a soft spot for nostalgia. I knew I was in for a long and stressful process. After a while, I realized that getting rid of stuff wasn’t necessarily the issue. However, looking through everything and deciding what to keep was quite overwhelming. I had to ask myself a series of questions in deciding what to keep: Why do I have this? Where did it come from? Why is this valuable to me? How long have I had this? Do I need it? Do I use it? Would someone else benefit more from having this? These are just a few of the many questions that you can use to determine an item’s value. In Downsizing Your Home with Style, we’re invited to shift our perspectives from “I’ve got to get rid of this stuff!” to “What can’t I live without?” You’re not sacrificing your beloved belongings, you’re reducing your things to the “best and most loved.” That’s not a bad way to look at things.

Like I mentioned, I have a lot of stuff. Not only is there an abundance of stuff, but it’s all quite awesome. Whether it’s an item that was gifted to me or something that I found at a thrift store, I keep my belongings in good condition. This actually makes it more difficult when deciding what to get rid of. First, I offer belongings to friends who I think will appreciate certain items and give them a good life. Then, I take the remaining “give-away” items to a local donation center. Rarely, but on occasion, I may sell some things to make a little extra money.

Here’s another tip: upcycle! When you have an item that you absolutely can’t part with (and have no reason to keep) you can re-purpose it! Upcycling is a great way to hold on to a beloved item and actually get use out of it. I’ve found many creative ways to re-use otherwise trash-worthy items. One of my favorite re-purposed items came from a busted bass drum – which is now my bedside table. I have also used old and broken jewelry to make new jewelry and hair accessories. Repurposing items is fun! Plus, it can help you save money.

The other important thing to keep in mind is having an organization system. There are plenty of containers in various sizes sold in stores to aid in this process. This might be a possible opportunity to repurpose something! My roommate and I recently bought small hooks (cup hooks) and pieces of half round molding to make a wall mounted necklace rack. Total cost? Less than $3. Organize Your Home is filled with great tips on keeping your belongings organized no matter what room you’re in or what it is you’re trying to accomplish – like moving your household!

As stressful as moving can be, it is important to keep the end goal in sight. With plenty of research and organization you can find the perfect home and feel confident in the amount of belongings that make the move with you. While you might not need all of your old school assignments, it’s alright to gather all of those old band t-shirts and make them into a brand new quilt!

Laci Radford is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the East Columbia Branch (while her home branch, in Savage, is being renovated). She is a music lover, writer, and an avid reader. She enjoys attending concerts, plays, and other forms of live entertainment. Her favorite activities include scoping out unique items at thrift stores, bonfires with friends, and having tie-dye parties. She is studying Psychology and plans to become a music and art therapist sooner rather than later.

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Female boomers in the U.S. make up a tad over 50% of the current population. And they are, healthier, wealthier, wiser, and making more lucrative investments than men. At least, according to Stephanie Holland of Sheconomy: A Guy’s Guide to Marketing To Women. But publishers and their authors don’t necessarily pitch to their vibrancy.

Library customers who make up the above statistic come in every summer asking the frustrating question: “Aren’t there any good books out there where the main character is – well – over 45?”

And the answer is: “There are! And you’re going to have a heck of a good time reading them!”

Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray

Julie Roseman and Romeo Cacciamani (both over 60 years old) are rival Boston florists whose families share a decades-old grievance. The fact that no one is precisely sure why or when it began doesn’t matter. In fact, all that Julie can remember from childhood is her father spitting on the floor if anyone dared utter the name “Cacciamani.”

Bitterness between the families only intensified when Julie’s teen-aged daughter, Sandy, and Romeo’s son, Tony, tried to elope. Fast forward almost 20 years: Julie’s divorced, Romeo’s widowed, and the Roseman-Cacciamani feud continues to simmer. Until Julie and Romeo meet at a job fair.

Suddenly, all hard feelings – not to mention the arid climate of post-menopause and erectile dysfunction go out the window — or at least the door of Romeo’s cozy, walk-in flower cooler where the two — well – combust. Hysterical!

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal? If so, consider this well-mannered English confection (replete with hedgerows and high tea).

When his brother dies, staid widower and retired schoolteacher, Major Pettigrew, can only seem to express his grief to Mrs. Ali, a warm and affable Pakistani shopkeeper (and widow) whom he’s known for years. But sorrow has a way of making one ‘see’ someone anew. Especially when there’s a shared delight in discussing Kipling.

Slowly but surely, their world begins to eclipse everyone – including small-minded neighbors and self-serving relations. Everyone but them.

There is nothing, Simonson reminds us in this endearing tale, like the rich patina of mid-life love.

A Year by The Sea by Joan Anderson

And finally, not fiction, but a sobering memoir. And by a grown up, now 64.

While 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed, (Wild), may have clue-lessly walked the Pacific Crest Trail in toe-pinching hiking boots, and thirty-something Elizabeth Gilbert showed readers the way toward becoming a pasta-eating yogi in Eat, Pray, Love, memoirist Joan Anderson chose a far less glamorous path to self-discovery.

In her mid-fifties, her husband of many years informed her he was taking a job offer out of state – one that would necessitate selling their family home. Joan’s reaction, after a pragmatic assessment of her life (or rather shelf-life as wife and mother) was not what anyone in her family expected. She headed for Cape Cod.

There, a dilapidated summer house would become her unlikely ‘muse’ for the next twelve months. The best part of Joan Anderson’s life was far from finished.

Lucky us.

Aimee Zuccarini is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the East Columbia Branch. She facilitates several book discussions and writes the book reviews for The Maryland Women’s Journal.

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Female boomers well into their middle-years are unfazed by much. They’ve lived and seen it all – except (and frustratingly often) when it comes to themselves as the main character inside those sherbet-colored book jackets that the Library of Congress keywords “men-women-relationships-fiction.”

Escaping, at any age, into an addictive read is good for the psyche (less calories than M&Ms) and a woman’s right. But if AARP membership is looming, and the main character is once again 22 and trying to come to terms with a hole in one of her Jimmy Choos, not so much.

“Once in a while,” my 56 year-old hair dresser remarked recently, “I’d like to see me reflected in one of those beach reads. I mean, I may be an ‘old hen,’ but I can still make soup!”

Well, here are some books that may make her shout, “Winner! Winner! Chicken dinner!”

Blue Rodeo by Joann Mapson

If you’re like Maggie Yearwood, and limping away from your car wreck of a marriage, what better place to ease the pain than the ancient mountain village of Blue Dog, New Mexico? That’s Maggie’s mid-life plan anyway – especially as the move now puts her closer to a school for the deaf – and her embittered son. More than that, she seeks isolation as the only possible cure to her artistic impotence. At least, until a little Navajo/New Age Karma puts her in the path of luckless sheep rancher, Owen Garrett. Gritty and chile bola hot, Mapson’s second novel is filled with distinctive voices who have weathered life and love, but are ready to go around a second time. Messy, sexy, and true.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker

It all begins when Joanie Pilcher’s ex calls to say his 20-something girlfriend is pregnant. If that isn’t the icing on the cake (which already consists of an opinionated live-in mom, Ivy, and an angry adolescent daughter, Caroline), Joanie doesn’t know what is. Maybe her therapy group will – although their whining and complaining is secretly getting to her as well – not to mention, her boss who keeps reminding Joanie how lucky she is to have any job at her age. Meanwhile, bewildered Ivy tries to grapple with a world suddenly moving at warp speed. Walking into a boutique, the saleswomen inform the septuagenarian that she may be too old to appreciate their merchandise. Ivy’s kiss-off? Shoplift a scarf – which promptly lands her in jail. At the same time, Caroline, who suffers the realization that she is invisible at school, channels this rage into dying her hair pink and convincing herself that she has multiple personality disorder. All of which begs the question: can this wacky dynasty be saved? NPR commentator Ruth Pennebacker delivers with an ending that’s both predictable and satisfying. Like milk and cookies.

Aimee Zuccarini is an Instructor & Research Specialist at the East Columbia Branch. She facilitates several book discussions and writes the book reviews for The Maryland Women’s Journal.

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