The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

1 Mar

Note: this post was first published at In Limbo.

Photo thanks to Christine Whelan

Today, I’d love to share a book review of a book that recently inspired me: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

I’ll be quick to emphasize up front: the author doesn’t present this book as an all-encompassing guide to happiness. It’s not a solution that postures to work for everyone, but merely an account of one woman’s guide to become happier in her everyday life. The everyday life bit is the most interesting – she works on small, positive resolutions, and seeks to be happier where she is. She doesn’t pack up and move to Hawaii or quit her job, she simply resolves to increase her positive experiences and diminish her negative ones. In this way, the book becomes a lot more accessible and helpful than one like Eat, Pray, Love (which I also liked!) in that it’s more doable.

The premise of the book is, Rubin realizes that she’s living her life away, one day at a time, without much thought to happiness. She decides to devote a year to promoting her happiness, focusing on an area such as “energy”, “mindfulness”, “money”, etc, for each month of the year. She tracks her progress with small, measurable resolutions on a chart that she fills out each day. Along the way she learns several truths about happiness and adulthood, among other things.

The book is very well researched – it cites several studies and research findings, as well as countless quotes on happiness. In my reading, I found myself scribbling down quotes, ideas for resolutions, and thoughts on happiness. In fact, much of the book hit home for me, in unexpected ways. Of course, the author and I lead very different lives (for one thing, I’m not a married mother-of-two), but I could do well to remember the majority of her resolutions in my day to day life.

One thing I like about the book is that it emphasizes that each person’s happiness project will be utterly different, since we all derive happiness in different ways. In fact, one of Rubin’s “Secrets of Adulthood” is that “what’s fun for others may not be fun for you, and vice versa”. There are lots of these juicy tidbits of wisdom to snack on throughout the book, and I found myself gobbling them up as fast as they came. I felt a sort of “Aha moment” (a la Oprah) at several points in the book, and these statements are already pervading my everyday interactions just a few days later.

“Act without expectation” turns out to be my #1 commandment – I am a person with high expectations, which tends to interfere with my happiness. One crucial thing Rubin hits on in her writing is that certain of our actions can make us feel unhappy, such as nagging, criticizing, getting upset, saying rude comments, losing our temper. If we can work to diminish these reactions, we can increase our happiness. After all, the only person we can change is our self. With this revelation, I already feel a great deal more at peace. I am the type of person who doesn’t leave things unsaid, who loses her temper, who has high expectations (and gets upset when they are not met). Even in just a few days, practicing restraint on these behaviours (biting my tongue, letting it go, not worrying about it) has made me feel more uplifted and happy about myself.

Another important truth she toucheson is feeling good in your body. Keeping myself well-rested, well-fed, well-dressed and well-groomed is so important, and yet I tend to let it fall by the wayside quite frequently. If I don’t feel good in my clothes, I don’t feel positively about myself; if I’m hungry, I’m grumpy and irritable. The simple task of taking care of myself has the power to influence all my daily interactions, and it should be taken more seriously.

Possibly my favourite tip from the book: if something takes one minute or less, do it now. It’s hard to think of examples, but in my day there are so many things that bum me out when I think about doing them, but that only take one minute. I’ve found that just doing them makes me feel more productive, and therefore: happier!

It’s much too hard to condense the whole book into a single blog post. She presents countless revelations and nuggets of wisdom throughout, and really inspires you to think more deeply about your own happiness. I encourage you to check out Rubin’s website for the Secrets of Adulthood, the Commandments, and lots of other interesting articles on happiness.

I’ll end with a few of my favourites from the book:

You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.

It’s okay to ask for help.

It’s easy to be heavy, hard to be light.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Act the way you want to feel.

The days are long, but the years are short.

I’d love to know – have you read The Happiness Project? If so, what did you think? Were you inspired to start your own happiness project, as I am?

And if you haven’t read it – does this post make you think about your own happiness? What makes you happy?

As always, I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

xoxo,

You can purchase the Happiness Project online here, and for your Kindle here.

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte

5 Sep

I have enjoyed many of Perez-Reverte’s books over the years.  Each offered an unique story, with interesting characters, and a mystery of sorts.  A few have been made into films over the years, though the films were never as rich, and intriguing, as the original novels.  Written in Spanish, I often wondered what, if anything, was lost in translation, and just how much richer, and fuller, the stories might have been in their original form.

The Painter of Battles is a fascinating story, though perhaps not his best novel.  I wondered if there was something lost in translation, and was left in the end with a feeling of a satisfying journey, though not the best one I have ever taken.

The Painter is about a war photographer, Andres Faulques, who has retired from his profession, and is painting a mural on the inside wall of an abandoned tower in an isolated part of Spain, on the ocean coast.  The painting is part of his healing process, as he depicts in the painting various images of war, from across the ages.  The real start of the story is the arrival at the tower of Ivo Markovic, a former Croatian soldier, who had been captured in one of Fauleques’ photographs during the Serbian-Croatian war; the photograph went on to become very famous – published in several magazines – and won awards.  It also had a profound effect on the life of the Croatian soldier: while a prisoner of the Serbian army, he was recognized and tortured; his family was singled out and killed; everything he valued was lost because of the photograph.

The ex-soldier had spent years following Faulques’ career, and in tracking him down.  And in finally meeting Faulques at his tower, he announces he is there to kill him.  Faulques takes the news rather calmly.  Markovic does not intend to kill him immediately, but wants to get to know him better, and has things to discuss.  He is also fascinated by the painted mural being created by Faulques.  Thus begins a series of meetings, and conversations, as Faulques continues to paint, and the two explore their respective perceptions of the world.

In their conversations, Faulques remembers experiences in his life, as a war photographer, and in particular his relationship with Olvido, a woman whom he loved, who for a few years went with him into the war-torn countries to take photographs, who shared his passion of paintings, and who died in Serbia, not long after Markovic’s picture was taken. Faulques relives a great deal of his past, through his conversations with Markovic, and his memories of his time with Olvido.  And in these memories, and conversations, his philosophy of life and the world is unwound and articulated.

Indeed, the book is a really a discussion on life philosophy and perceptions of the world.  The story interweaves this philosophy with Faulques’ experience in taking his photographs, with his understanding of famous painters and their works, of his time spent with Olvido, of the details of the mural he is painting, and of parts of Markovic’s life.  Perez-Reverte provides a fascinating journey examining art, war, life, and morality, and challenges our beliefs of the “truth” in photographs and our relative perceptions of the world we live in.

Running underneath this exploration, and the story, is the tension of Markovic’s intention to kill Faulques.  This final confrontation is the conclusion of the story – I would not describe it as a climax, as it is portrayed as the end meeting point of two souls destined to meet, and interact, because fate has thrown them together.

The book was generally an easy read, though the story takes detours into deeper subjects, and will at times, clunk along as Faulques explains why he thinks and feels the way he does, or the relevance of one of his experiences to a painting.  While this book will not be to everyone’s liking, I did enjoy it, overall, despite feeling, upon finishing, that it could have been so much more.  Yet it was an enjoyable read, the odd bumps along the way were not overly diverting, and it is worthwhile addition to my library.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

5 Sep

Observation #1: I have read all 3 books in the series, one following the other, which I will suggest is the only way to read this series.  They flow nicely together, and lead to an ultimate resolution that has run throughout the books.

Observation #2: These books are mystery-thrillers, that were obviously plotted out in one-go, at the outset, as the story seamlessly flows through the 3 books, and while each book works on its own, only the first could stand independent of the others.  Book 2 starts where Book 1 ends, and Book 3 starts where Book 2 ends, so in a way, they are all one story.

Observation #3: These are well written books, generally well translated from Swedish, that are easy to read.  There are, however, a few places where the events are graphic and may be disturbing to some.  Be warned.  These plot points are by and large necessary for the book’s plot, as well as the over-arching plot, and so can not be easily avoided (as they are referred to and referenced in the story), but may not be the most comfortable to read.  But these sequences are short, and are only a small bump in the overall story.

Observation #4: If you had to read only one of the 3 books, then the first book would be by far the best choice.  It has a complex and complicated plot, that works within the book itself with little left unresolved.  It is an interesting read, the characters are introduced and developed, and it has a finale that ties things together.   I felt it was a tight mystery-thriller, that was engaging, and not obvious in the solution.  The complexity made the story even more interesting, with some depth and flavor that only adds to your enjoyment of the book.  I very much enjoyed this book.

Observation #5: This is a very difficult book to write a review on.  As noted, the plot is complicated, so it is difficult to distill to a few simple sentences.  The characters are complex and not easily described.  The value of the book is in the read.  The journey through that plot, meeting the characters, in experiencing the events for the first time, as you move through 800+ pages of an extremely interesting and compelling story.  It should be classified as a mystery, but it is a lot more than that.  I have seen it referred to as a thriller (it is), as suspenseful (yes), as a scathing commentary on society (it is that, though perhaps more on Swedish society), as political (not sure it is that political), and as a well-written novel, in the classic sense of “novels” (that I can agree with).  My recommendation is to recognize all reviews will not be able to provide you with the necessary preparation for reading this first book, or any in the series; ultimately, you will have to have the faith just to jump right in and see for yourself.

Observation #6: Thus, it is my recommendation that this is the type of book you need to read for yourself, and decide for yourself, whether you like it or not.  Many have read it and enjoyed it.  I was not sure I would, as I seldom enjoy what “the masses” enjoy, when it comes to books.  But I was pleasantly surprised with this book, and the series, as I found it enjoyable and quite good.  So, in this case, “the masses” were right.  But let your own opinion be your own judge.  I can see how this book may not be for everyone.  And if you don’t enjoy mystery thrillers, then this may not be for you.  My suggestions is give the book a try.  Commit to reading the first third of the book, at least, to see if it has roped you into its compelling story, or has left you in the classic Swedish cold.

Observation #7: If you enjoy the first book, then Books 2 and 3 should also be read.  But be prepared for disappointment, as the series ends after Book 3, as the author died after completing the third book.  There will likely not be more in the series*, which is a great disappointment, but this finality makes this series truly classic.  Some stories are meant to end at a certain point, no matter how much we may wish for it to continue; but they do end, as does this series, with the shutting of the door on the reader, barring us from spending more time with these wonderful, compelling characters, leaving us with the promising, yet frustrating final line in the third book: “She opened the door wide and let him into her life again.”    The door closes on the reader as it opens on the lives of the characters.   Be warned, you will likely be left wanting for more.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

23 Jul

Cloud Atlas

Photo thanks to condalmo.wordpress.com

‘Ahhh.’

That’s the precise feeling I had as I hungrily gobbled up the last words of this masterpiece. Even after turning the last page, closing the book and rubbing the back cover in that clichéed but perfect way, I was unable to let go. In fact, for the next couple days, I kept it with me, thinking about the characters, pondering the detail and the storylines and at times flipping back through the book to read through the delicious mind traps and perfectly woven plot.

Even before I was halfway through, it had instantly become one of my favourite books. It’s that good. The amount of precision and detail involved is astounding, but all the while that finely tuned machinery of the novel is masked by the easy breezy, enchanting style of the author’s prose. I was willingly swept up in the storylines, hanging on to every word and re-reading pages just for the fun of it. It was less a novel than an experience for me, full of wonder and excitement and, surprisingly, powerful political commentary. It’s a thinking book.

It’s hard to describe this book without taking away from its perfection, which lies in the way the stories unfold to the reader. This much can be told without spoiling it: six characters, spread out across centuries, in different parts of the world entirely. Each character has a powerful story, connected in subtle and fascinating ways to the other characters, those connections revealed slowly and carefully throughout the book. The author effortlessly (well, I’m sure it required much effort, but it doesn’t seem that way to us) inhabits each of the characters’ souls and personalities, writing in a variety of styles to reveal the different facets of their personality. The styles include an interview, a journal, a movie script, a first-hand account..each perfectly suited to the characters themselves.

As the book (or maybe the reader!) races back through the stories, revisiting them and tying up loose ends, you’re struck again and again by the connecting details, the characters’ links and the magnitude of detail involved here. It’s incredible.

The book made me feel alive, in a way I can’t really explain. It made me happy, it entertained me at the most primitive level of my being: it told me stories. It told me rich, detailed, fascinating and compelling stories, beautifully crafted stories, stories that might once have been real and could become real in the distant future. And although it’s intellectual, it’s not an impossibility to read. The stories aren’t pretentious, they’re real.

It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, and won several other awards including the British Books Awards for Literary Fiction. It’s David Mitchell’s third book, and I’m itching to get my hands on his others. His newest book is called The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet, published this year. If you want more spoilers on Cloud Atlas, read them here.

This book made me happy to have read it. It tricked me and messed with my head and made me think. How wonderful! All in all, a wonderfully entertaining and intellectual read. I can’t wait to read something else by this marvelous author.

Cheers!

Shelfari

30 Jun

Hello fellow book-lovers! How are you this fine evening? I hope everyone liked the last review, by adistantlife, who is our new contributor! Hopefully over the next little while we’ll get some more contributors set up here on the site and there will be lots more content available. You can check out his ‘about’ page for more information on the types of things he likes to read!


For now though, I thought I’d stop by and do a feature post on one of my favourite websites. Shelfari is a wonderful website for any and all avid book-readers. It’s a service that allows you to create your own shelf (you can even choose the finish on said shelf, if you wish!) which will contain electronic versions of books.

There are three categories per shelf: I’ve Read, I Want to Read, I’m Reading. You can indicate your favourite books, and the ones you own also. Think of it as having an electronic bookshelf.

The really cool part about this service is that it allows you to make books a social thing, without going so far as to start a book club. A few of my good friends are using the service, and it’s so fun to check out what they’re reading or what’s on their ‘to-read’ list. It can start conversations, provoke sharing and provide tons of inspiration!

Whenever you read a new book, or hear about one in the newspaper/radio/tv, all you have to do is search for it, quickly choose which category it belongs in on your shelf, and it’s there for future reference. You have the option of rating books that are on your shelf, providing information on their characters/summaries on their general info pages, participating in discussions of the books with other Shelfari members, and more. There are also tons of groups you can join on the site, depending on what sort of books you enjoy.

All in all, I think it’s a fun service. I don’t use it for social networking so much as for my own records and amusement, but it could be used for any number of other things! Like I said, it’s a favourite service of mine and I thought you might want to check it out.

If you’re interested, here’s my profile on Shelfari, feel free to check out what I’m reading these days!

xoxo, S.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

26 Jun

Photo thanks to ffbsccn.wordpress.com

This is an account of how one baseball team went about doing their business very differently than everyone else.  It is the story of how the Oakland A’s, under the leadership of Billy Beane, re-invented how baseball teams build their teams.  Specifically, how teams evaluate talent and determine which players they want to draft or trade for.  The change in approach is based on moving from the judgment of scouts – typically ex-players who employ their instincts and preferences in their evaluation of players – to the utilization of statistics on the players’ performance.  And more importantly, the creation of a whole new set of stats, that attempt to better understand what is important in the success of a player, and of a team.

When they started down this path, in the early part of this century, the Oakland A’s were ahead of the curve, alone among their peers.  Today, many organizations have followed suit, including the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox.  But back in 2001, the A’s chose to do things differently, taking this path because they could not compete financially with the other richer clubs.  And they proved they could complete, year-after-year, getting more wins with their limited budget that any other team.  They had figured out something others had not, and were exploiting it to their advantage and success.

Like any advantage, others will soon catch up and diminish the advantage.  This has happened to some extent in baseball, but not as much as one might expect.  Lewis offers a possible explanation, in suggesting that Major League Baseball was less of a business, and more as a club or fraternity.  And in being a club, there are some beliefs that are sacred which are not to be challenged or changed.  What the A’s did, and a few others in turn, was to challenge those sacred beliefs.  And for many teams, this was not done, and nor would they follow.  So the advantage the A’s realized, which resulted in their being more effective in running their team, was ignored by others, dismissed for many reasons and explanations, the truth ignored and not acknowledged.

In truth, there may be a fundamental flaw in the Moneyball approach employed by the A’s.  It comes down to how you define success.  If success is being competitive throughout the season, and in making the playoffs, then the A’s under Billy Beane would be considered a success, as their record has been one of the best in baseball over that time period.  If, however, success is defined as also wining the World Series, then there is something missing from the Moneyball approach, as the A’s have not won the World Series since 1990 (before Beane became general manager).  Not sure what is missing in the Moneyball approach, but something obviously is, which leaves Billy Beane’s A’s as very good, but just not a dynasty.

The book is a fascinating inside look at a team, and their unique approach to building their team, and is of most interest to those who love baseball.  It is certainly not for everyone.  The love and admiration for baseball statistics that Lewis provides throughout the book is only for those whose eyes do not glaze over with the mention of ERA, OPS, and any types of average.  This book was written for the lovers of all things baseball, and is certainly a joy for those of us who do.  Knowing of some of the players referenced in the book also helped bring the story to life, especially when speaking of players who were just starting their careers at the time of the book’s writing (seeing where they ended up provided an interesting hind-sight perspective to the stories).

Overall, I found this a fascinating book, covering a sport I love, and providing new ideas and insights that were a joy to discover.  While having no real love for the A’s, or Billy Beane, I came away having a new found admiration for both, for the courage of what they did and the risks they took.  Looking back, I see what other teams attempted to do in the spirit of the A’s (i.e., the Toronto Blue Jays under) and understand what they were attempting to achieve (though Ricciardi doesn’t seem to be as much of a disciple of Beane as one might have hoped).  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was left with a desire to learn more about not only Moneyball, but also about the running of baseball teams in general.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an ounce of interest in baseball, the application of statistics, or in a story of David taking on Goliath.

Dying To Read..

14 Jun

These are a few books that I’m so excited to read that I’m practically tying myself to a chair to prevent the inevitable sprinting to Chapters to buy them. I am typically a patient(ish) person – I’ll see a book I want to read, either online, in the paper or in the store, and then I’ll place a hold for pickup at my library. The only problem is that sometimes, other people want to read the same books that I do. Then what happens is I get stuck in an inevitable holds lineup of anywhere from 7 to 44 people. And the line never gets any shorter. It’s so frustrating. And yes, I’m the type of person to check my library holds online 4 times a day. Guess what people! READ FASTER! But, since I’m poor and cheap, I must sit patient(ish)ly and await my turn to read said books. Sigh. Such is the life of a reader, I suppose.

Anywho, here they are: the ‘I-Can’t-Wait-To-Reads’!

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

By: Aimee Bender

First, read the reviews from The Globe and Mail and The Millions.

Photo thanks to opl.on.ca

And here’s the book description from Amazon.ca:

On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.

The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them. It is heartbreaking and funny, wise and sad, and confirms Aimee Bender’s place as “a writer who makes you grateful for the very existence of language.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

By: Alan Bradley

This one has been recommended to me by several of my old colleagues at the bookstore, who say that it is absolutely adorable, but also a very compelling mystery story.

Photo thanks to opl.on.ca

Here’s an article about the author himself – a 70 year old from Cobourg, ON initially! Props to Canada.

And here’s the description from Amazon.ca:

A delightfully dark English mystery, featuring precocious young sleuth Flavia de Luce and her eccentric family.

The summer of 1950 hasn’t offered up anything out of the ordinary for eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce: bicycle explorations around the village, keeping tabs on her neighbours, relentless battles with her older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and brewing up poisonous concoctions while plotting revenge in their home’s abandoned Victorian chemistry lab, which Flavia has claimed for her own.

But then a series of mysterious events gets Flavia’s attention: A dead bird is found on the doormat, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. A mysterious late-night visitor argues with her aloof father, Colonel de Luce, behind closed doors. And in the early morning Flavia finds a red-headed stranger lying in the cucumber patch and watches him take his dying breath. For Flavia, the summer begins in earnest when murder comes to Buckshaw: “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

Did the stranger die of poisoning? There was a piece missing from Mrs. Mullet’s custard pie, and none of the de Luces would have dared to eat the awful thing. Or could he have been killed by the family’s loyal handyman, Dogger… or by the Colonel himself! At that moment, Flavia commits herself to solving the crime — even if it means keeping information from the village police, in order to protect her family. But then her father confesses to the crime, for the same reason, and it’s up to Flavia to free him of suspicion. Only she has the ingenuity to follow the clues that reveal the victim’s identity, and a conspiracy that reaches back into the de Luces’ murky past.

A thoroughly entertaining romp of a novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is inventive and quick-witted, with tongue-in-cheek humour that transcends the macabre seriousness of its subject.

Summer at Tiffany

By: Marjorie Hart

The wonderfully glamourous-sounding memoir of one woman’s move to New York City to be a clerk at Tiffany’s for a summer. How luxurious! Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly a breeze, but that’s exactly why I want to read it..all the gritty details of the world’s most glam store.

Photo thanks to amazon.ca

And here is the description from Amazon.ca:

New York City, 1945. Marjorie Jacobson and her best friend, Marty Garrett, arrive fresh from the Kappa house at the University of Iowa hoping to find summer positions as shopgirls. Turned away from the top department stores, they miraculously find jobs as pages at Tiffany & Co., becoming the first women to ever work on the sales floor, a diamond-filled day job replete with Tiffany-blue shirtwaist dresses from Bonwit Teller’s—and the envy of all their friends.

Looking back on that magical time in her life, Marjorie takes us back to when she and Marty rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, pinched pennies to eat at the Automat, experienced nightlife at La Martinique, and danced away their weekends with dashing midshipmen. Between being dazzled by Judy Garland’s honeymoon visit to Tiffany, celebrating VJ Day in Times Square, and mingling with CafÉ society, she fell in love, learned unforgettable lessons, made important decisions that would change her future, and created the remarkable memories she now shares with all of us.

Runners Up

Photo thanks to opl.on.ca

Photo thanks to opl.on.ca

Okay, fine, I’ll wait..

..but you know I’ll be watching my holds very closely. Or, I could break the bank and scamper on down to the local bookstore. Huh. We’ll see!

Let me know: what books are you dying to read??

xoxo, S.