Book review – The Art of Frugal Hedonism, by Annie Raser-Rowland & Adam Grubb

9780994392817When I found out about The Art of Frugal Hedonism, I was intrigued because that sounds contradictory – hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure, is something typically associated with having lots of money to spend on all the greatest pleasures in life: the best food, the most exclusive wine, the softest fabric, the rarest gems, etc. But, the authors argue that there’s a sweet spot between penny-pinching and over consumption. They also maintain that it’s entirely reasonable and appropriate to ignore the typical 40+ hours a week rat race and focus on earning just enough, instead. Combining those two thoughts (having just enough money and working only as much as you need) with a healthy dose of frugal living is something they strive for. In other words, they have a roof over their heads and can feed themselves, but they don’t over indulge and they bargain for goods and services where they can.

One of the great things about this book is that they don’t tell you to drop everything and start being frugal this instant. Instead, they explore different options and explain how these options might work for you or have worked for people they know. Each chapter touches on another aspect or another option, so you get a pretty broad look at all the possible ways you can be frugal and find great, but cheap, pleasures in life, like potlucks with friends or long walks in nature.

Overall, I think that they had a lot of good ideas and great intentions. My one complaint is that I felt that they were very insular in their thought processes. While I don’t expect a book to represent all possible options, I was frustrated by a few things. For example, I felt as though they implied that frugal living was easy to start and to maintain, when in fact it may require a big shift in habits and may even require developing skills that some people would find very uncomfortable. As an introvert, I can assure you that bargaining and community building is not as easy as “just asking” – it requires at least a little bit of courage.

Another thing that I took issue with was a bit of fat shaming. I know that I can be a bit over sensitive to this because of my bad relationship with my body, but I was hurt when these seemingly nice people who seemed to embrace people for who they were and not their physical traits suddenly described seeing gym goers by saying “…the desperate pumping of blobby limbs spied through the gym window.” Based on the context, I believe it was meant as a witty remark, but the implication was negative and it nearly put me right off the book. But, I reminded myself that I can be overly sensitive and kept reading. Sadly, I was disappointed again when they made light of mental illness, implying that it was something that frugal hedonism could cure: “…have you heard about the therapy bills those ‘enviable’ types with designer lounge suites and private pilates instructors are racking p? Choose patchy purchasing for mental and fiscal health today!!

I nearly quit again, but I resolved to finish reading it because I always try to read as much as I can when I intend to do a review. Thankfully, I didn’t find any more overtly offensive remarks. At the end of the day, I think that they were, as mentioned above, just trying to be witty. But, they were ignorant to the possibility that fat people or people who need therapy might be reading the book. While I’m disappointed by this, I don’t think that the remarks were intentionally hurtful and I believe that the book has a lot of good information in it that could help people who want to try to be a bit more frugal. Personally, I won’t be quitting my job to live the life of a frugal hedonist any time soon, but I have taken some of their ideas into consideration and I’ve referred to many of the resources they provided at the end of the book (books, online resources, etc.).

I think that this book could be very useful and interesting to a lot of people, especially people who are looking for cheap ways to have fun, new ideas for living frugally, or options that they could incorporate into their lives as they embark on long term travelling or living in a van (van living seems to be very trendy these days).

So, yes, I was a bit offended by a few things they said, but, overall, I think this is a good resource and I’m glad that I read it.

Advertisements

Book review – Life Reimagined by Barbara Bradley Hagerty

25776251To be completely honest, when I first started listening to Life Reimagined, I was filled with dread and regret: I’m going to die alone, immobile and demented! It’s a hard book to read when you’re in the middle of questioning all your life decisions (what I thought was a mild “mid-life crisis”, but this book points out that mid-life crises don’t exist). This book doesn’t sugar coat the science, so it can be tough to read. But, it’s also incredibly interesting.

Hagerty lays out the truth of mid-life: we all think that this is when life takes a downward turn, and the choices we make now can certainly have major impacts on our health and well-being in the future, but mid-life is full of new possibilities and opportunities to explore new hobbies and new purposes. As the summary states, “It’s the time to renegotiate your purpose, refocus your relationships, and transform the way you think about the world and yourself.”

Hagerty looks at biology, genetics, sociology, neurology, psychology, and how they all link together, affecting our health and relationships. She ties these to our potential futures, lining our current choices with our future physical and mental health.

I was particularly interested (and worried) about the correlation between mental health (depression, dementia, etc.) and our social lives. Essentially, we all need to remember to stay connected with friends and family, even if we are introverts who’d rather stay at home with a good book. Thankfully, for those of us who still want to read more than we socialize, reading is good for our brains, too.

What I loved best about this book was that Hagerty was honest about the data, but she wasn’t doom and gloom – she focused on the good and showed how even little changes are correlated with good outcomes. Essentially, we all need to eat better, walk more, read on occasion, learn new things on occasion, and stay connected. This is not new information for most of us, but it was nice to see if outlined in the context of middle age.

I enjoyed reading this book, though, as mentioned at the start, it was a bit tough at times. It’s easy to feel we’re failing to lead the “perfect” life, but I kept reminding myself that if I could do just 75% of what Hagerty says I should be doing, then I’m doing better than before. And, I’m both improving my future and my current mental and physical health.

Book review – Solitude by Michael Harris

31451181I really wanted to love this book, but, as interesting as the many topics Harris covered were, I felt that the book veered into crotchety, distracted old folk territory.

Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World starts with a good overview of what solitude is (not loneliness, for the record) and why it’s important to have some time to ourselves on occasion (including time away from our smartphones). Harris discusses the benefits of solitude in the context of children (it helps them develop self-governing skills), thinkers (having time to consider your ideas before sharing them), and the general public (consolidating thoughts may help us to find a sense of meaning and happiness in our lives).

“… because whoever can do nothing, letting his thoughts go where they may, must be at peace with himself.”

I didn’t agree with everything he said. For example, he seemed fairly convinced that only miserable artists will succeed, which is utter nonsense. While I understand that dissatisfaction can lead to creativity through what Harris calls attempts to “build a bridge”, I don’t think that you have to be miserable to be an artist, successful or not. I think that happiness can foster creativity. Perhaps being content with how things are can be a road block – if you don’t see a need for change or a need to add another voice, then you may not be inclined to create something. But, the idea that an artist needs to be dissatisfied to be successful seems a bit black and white. In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert is firmly against the trope of the tragic artist. She notes that it is possible to enjoy making art and that we shouldn’t fetishsize suffering or mental health issues. And, I agree with her.

But, back to Harris’ thoughts on solitude. He also discusses the fact that we should all be able and comfortable with making our own decisions, which can be hard when we’re constantly plugged into the rest of the world (whether that being through social engagement or social media). One of his points struck a chord for me: “… then the choices we make online about what books to read, what songs to listen to, what movies to watch become less independent and more manipulated.” This happened to me over the past two years with regards to books. I went from “oh, hey, that sounds like a good recommendation. I think I’ll read that” to “she says it’s good, so I must read it.” That’s why so many of the books that were on my unread shelf at the end of last year were so easy to get rid of – they were good books with great reviews, but I was only going to read them because they were good books, with great reviews.

Unfortunately, it’s at about this point in the book when I felt that things were starting to go sideways. It felt like a lot of the discussion in the latter half of his book was really just him complaining about cultural evolution. Things have changed, technology has been developed, some innovations have affected our privacy and how we connect. Some of this is good, and some of it is bad, but I felt like Harris was cherry-picking examples to whine about kids these days. For example, he had a long discussion about people who’ve never written a snail-mail letter or used a typewriter before, but completely neglected to look at the people who are embracing such things (not just in terms of the hipster culture, but also in the context of simple living).

Later in the book, Harris started to talk about our failing bodies and death. This where I got lost. I couldn’t figure out what any of this discussion had to do with solitude. It was an interesting discussion about mortality and technology, but I couldn’t find the connection to solitude.

In the end, Harris did swing back to the topic of solitude, but I was a bit disappointed in some of the things he said. It felt like he was imposing his own feelings or assumptions on how we should seek and experience solitude. For example, he discussed the balance between being alone (solitude) and being with others (real or virtual). Overall, the discussion was interesting, but it felt like he assumed that there was a set ratio: you need 1 hour of solitude for every 3 hours you spend with others. But, that’s not true. The kind of company you keep (strangers, friends, friends you can be “alone” with) will affect how much (if any) alone time is needed afterwards. So will the kind of person you are – an extrovert will need (and want) far less solitude than an introvert.

I was also disappointed when he suggested that there was a right way to seek solitude. He used Thoreau and the unabomber as examples, which suggests that if you do it wrong, you’re going to become a domestic terrorist, which is silly and alarmist. There are many ways to be alone, and there are many reasons to be alone. Both of these men chose solitude for different reasons. How the unabomber found his solitude may have exacerbated he’s isolation and extreme thoughts, but it didn’t necessarily result in his actions. In other words, running off into the woods alone isn’t necessarily going to turn someone into murderer.

Overall, I found the book to be fairly interesting (I even wrote enthusiastically about the idea of “rediscovering” ourselves a few months ago), but I did feel that it suffered from a lot of scope-creep (turning off into topics that were only loosely related). It’s worth reading the first half, but it’s certainly not Harris’ best book.

Book review – Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner

29491890As noted on the author’s website, Chasing Slow is about “slowing down, about stripping the excess, about refusing to amass in a world that shouts for more”. In other words, it’s about simplifying your life and minimizing your possessions. What makes it stand apart from books like The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up is that it’s not strictly a how-to book. It’s full of advice, but it’s also full of anecdotes about the author’s path to simplicity, the good and the bad.

I enjoyed the book and got a lot of good advice from it. It’s a good, solid read and I think that a lot of people would really enjoy it. Some of the advice she gives is really thoughtful and I found her book to fairly inclusive (for example, she doesn’t preach getting rid of everything and seems to have a fairly realistic view of simplicity and minimalism).

The three main things that I got from the book are:

1. Our default equation is to add more when we feel less

I think this is pretty common knowledge: we buy things to feel better about ourselves, we strive for bigger homes, we work to get larger salaries, etc. But, as Loechner notes, this equation wrong. Adding more things to our lives won’t make us happier, except maybe for that brief moment when we make the purchase (obviously, there are exceptions: if you are poor, a larger income will make you happier; if you have two jobs and three kids, kitchen tools that make meal prep faster will free up more time; etc.).

But, we’ve been led to believe that we should buy more to be more. For many of us, that simply means having more things around, but still being at the same base level of happiness or contentment. Or, being worse off because we spend all our time maintaining all those things or working to afford the space to house all those things.

One of the things Loachner said in her book that struck a chord with me was that we should remove the weight from your wings so we can fly. I’ve seen this or similar ideas in other books, but it felt particularly relevant while reading her book. The idea is that we all have capacity to fly, but it’s easier to do so if we aren’t carrying a load, whether that be stuff, emotional baggage, or the social rules we use to lock ourselves into to be versions of ourselves that we think society will approve of.

2. Things should add value, meaning or purpose

What Loechner said was this: “If it does not add value, it does not add much. If it does not add meaning, it does not add much. If it does not add purpose, it does not add much.”

This is very much in line with Marie Kondo’s philosophy of only keeping things that bring you joy (or have a purpose). And, I think that it’s a good philosophy to follow. It doesn’t mean that you can only have things that add value, meaning, or purpose. It simply means that anything else won’t add much.

And, of course, how “value”, “meaning” and “purpose” are defined will depend on you. Does “value” mean increasing the value of your house, or providing you with a service that is valuable to you? Does “meaning” need to be a family heirloom, or can it be a special souvenir or photo from a vacation?

3. Life lessons in frugality

At the end of the book, Loechner shares several life lessons. The list include basics like “it’s not a sale if you don’t need it” or “never buy anything dry clean only.” It also includes ones that I don’t see that often, like:

  • You can save time or you can save money – shopping universally saves neither
  • Reduce, reuse, or just plain go without (the less you have to dust, the less you have to dust)
  • Don’t be afraid of that thrift store musk (it washes out)

 

Overall, I found the book had a really good balance between Loechner’s own story and her advice about simplicity and minimalism. I think that a lot of people would find it very inspirational and would feel that they could relate to her story more than I did.

It’s a good book and you should read it if this is a topic you’re interested in.

Isabelle Arsenault – Illustrator

Let’s talk about illustrators. I’m a sucker for art. If I had unlimited funds and my own library, I would buy just about any book ten times over if I loved the new cover design and/or someone filled it with art.

This is why I love picture books. One of my favourite things about my trip to visit the niblings earlier this spring was reading books to the kids at bedtime. They loved it because they got more time with aunty Anne and I loved it because I got more time with the kids … and I got to read a bunch of kids books. One night, my sister-in-law (who is awesome, for the record) sent me down after bedtime reading with a handful of books that she loved because of the art. I was in heaven. They are all delightful in their own unique ways and I made a list of new-to-me kids book authors and illustrators to check out.

Isabelle Arsenault was not one of them, but seeing all that fabulous art made me think about illustrators, and it got me thinking: I review books all the time and I love art, so why don’t I ever talk about books based on their art?

Today, I would like to introduce you to the art of Isabelle Arsenault, an award winning Canadian illustrator based out of Montreal.

screenshot_20180530-105809

I first discovered her art through House of Anansi Press. I had a coupon from them and was planning on picking up a novel, but ended up picking a “kids” books called Jane, the Fox and Me, written by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I fell in love with the art immediately. I “read” the book twice before actually reading the words because I just loved the art. The story is pretty great, too, but it was the art that I fell in love with.

screenshot_20180530-105806
From: Jane, the Fox & Me
screenshot_20180530-105814
From: Jane, the Fox & Me

 

screenshot_20180530-1058191
From: Jane, the Fox & Me

I love the roughness of the pencil and I loved how she easily transitioned from a rugged, almost sketch-like neutral or grayscale illustrations to beautiful, colour-filled spreads that felt like they could be in a gallery. I know that a lot of people would disregard Arsenault’s style as unfinished, but I think that it’s a triumph because it shows that you only need a pencil to make something beautiful.

screenshot_20180530-105824
Top: Cloth Lullaby. Bottom: You Belong Here.

I picked up a couple of library books that were also illustrated by Arsenault and found the same gorgeous work. You Belong Here (written by M H Clark) had the same mostly-grayscale motif and was full of beautiful pictures. Cloth Lullaby (written by Amy Novesky) was filled with colour and pushed the boundaries of imagination, which suited the content beautifully because it’s a biography of the artist Louise Bourgeois. I ended up purchasing a copy of the latter because I loved both the biography and the illustrations.

screenshot_20180530-105841
From: You Belong Here
screenshot_20180530-105831
From: Cloth Lullaby

There are many other books with Arsenault’s illustrations and you can buy prints of some of her work at Sur Ton Mur, a store in Montreal that celebrates and sells illustrations by several wonderful artists.

Who are your favourite illustrators? I’m always eager to find new artists.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

9781921372476I’m not entirely sure what made me decide to pick up this book last year. I like to write, but I don’t want to be an author. I guess I was just curious to read the book because I kept coming across references to it. It’s often noted as a book that’s very important for writers and very inspirational.

On one hand, I can see why people find it inspirational, but on the other hand, I feel like I learned more about the author than about being a writer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I’ve been inspired and changed by many books that were, on the whole, just autobiographies and a scattering of tips and life lessons.

The one part of the book that made me sit up and pay attention was her discussion about how perfectionism is like a cramped muscle:

I think that something similar happens to our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds – the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both – to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.

I struggle with perfectionism. You’d never know it to see me or speak to me, but that’s because I tend to hide it well. I also default to “if it can’t be perfect, there’s no point in trying,” so people rarely see my perfectionism in practice. This “go big or go home” attitude is both ridiculous and immensely unfair to myself.

When I read this, I immediately recognized myself and many of my issues with moving forward with art. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I used to aspire to being an artist – studying art, doing art daily, etc. But, I let life get in the way and eventually found that my skills had diminished and I’d lost my path. Being a perfectionist, my reaction to this was to become despondent and to assume that there was no hope. So, I turned to other creative endeavours, especially hobbies that looked easy enough and still allowed some room for creativity. But, I was never satisfied and I could never stop thinking about how I had always wanted to be an artist.

While the book didn’t leave much of an impression on me, this paragraph did because it became the catalyst that started to move me forward. I started to sketch more (now daily, where possible), I started to look for and take art classes, I started to evaluate what I needed (and wasn’t getting) from the art classes I was taking, and I started to remember how great it was to make art. So, I guess the book had it’s intended effect on me. Sure, I’m not planning on quitting and heading to art school, nor am I interested in becoming a professional artist. But, I make art, I aspire to learn more, and I finally feel comfortable calling myself an artist again.

Book review: The Strays by Emily Bitto

30145124

“More than thirty years later, the scars still sleep on my wrists.”

I seem to really love fiction relating to art and artists and The Strays, by Emily Bitto, was no exception. I loved the story, I loved the language, and I loved the way art was part of the story.

Synopsis:

On her first day at a new school, Lily meets Eva, one of the daughters of the infamous avant-garde painter Evan Trentham. He and his wife are attempting to escape the stifling conservatism of 1930s Australia by inviting other like-minded artists to live and work with them at their family home. As Lily’s friendship with Eva grows, she becomes infatuated with this makeshift family and longs to truly be a part of it.

Looking back on those years later in life, Lily realises that this utopian circle involved the same themes as Evan Trentham’s art: Faustian bargains and terrible recompense; spectacular fortunes and falls from grace. Yet it was not Evan, nor the other artists he gathered around him, but his own daughters, who paid the debt that was owing.

The Strays is an engrossing story of ambition, sacrifice and compromised loyalties from an exciting new talent. [Source]

Lily, the first-person narrator, is the bored only child of ordinary parents. She’s drawn to Eva and Eva’s family from the start and seems to live very much in their shadow. She allows their lives to happen around her and to her, quietly observing and absorbing everything. But, as the family starts to fall apart, she becomes more entangled and, later in life, she is forced to bare the weight of her actions (or, inactions, as the case may be).

“ ‘An artist is someone who sees the structures of order and recognizes them as arbitrary.’ ”

It’s a fascinating story and it’s told beautifully. I loved reading about the art and about the artists’ perspective on art, the art community of the time, and the need or desire to expand beyond the more conservative art that was accepted and expected at the time.

The family dynamics were also interesting. It was clear, from the start, that the parents loved their children, but didn’t seem to know how to put aside their own lives and art for the sake of their children. This isn’t to say they were bad parents – they both clearly loved their children. But, each of the girls suffered from neglect in some regard or another.

“… and sometimes Eva and I sat up together and watched, quiet amongst the laughter of adults like stones in midstream.”

It was interesting to see it from Lily’s perspective because she’s a passive observer while the family builds up and eventually collapses. But, later in the book, she’s the center of the story. It ties in nicely with her own perspective of being an outsider wanting in and, eventually, finding more clarity through revisiting her own life and her own broken relationships.

“I will wake tomorrow, I thought, and this night will be inside me.”

This is one of favourite reads this year (possibly of all time) and I’m very tempted to buy a copy to keep.

 

 

Book review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

34467031Manhattan Beach is about Anna, a young woman who works in the Naval Shipyard factories and who is determined to become a diver, an idea that is laughable to the men in charge  (this is during the WWII era, when women worked only because so many men were at the front). But, it’s also about the mystery of her father’s disappearance and the influential gangster who might know what happened.

The story weaves between three perspectives: Ed’s (the father), Anna’s and Dexter’s (the gangster). Though, it starts as Ed’s story, Anna quickly becomes the primary focus. It moves back and forth through the three characters slowly (typically, a couple chapters at a time), giving the reader time to get to know each of them: their lives, their relationships, and their perspective on each other.

I really enjoyed the story and the writing, which was often beautifully evocative. I also enjoyed the interwoven perspectives and I appreciated the social commentary Egan seamlessly interjected. The social issues she touched on included turning to crime to support a family during the depression, having a physically and mentally disabled child in the 30’s onward, being a woman, being black, and being gay. In each case, she may have only added a few off-hand notes or comments, but it was enough to remind the reader of how many social barriers people faced and how easy it was to end up the topic of rumours and prejudice.

I admit that I forgot who a couple of the background characters were throughout the book, periodically having to remind myself (or Google) why a person was important to Ed as the story progressed. But, that was likely because I was listening to the audiobook and not necessarily a fault in the story telling. Given that I listen during my commutes, it’s not unusual for me to be momentarily distracted on occasion. Also, I’m not a details person (give me a family tree and/or list of characters, and I will be thrilled).

The audiobook version that I listened to was beautifully performed by Norbert Leo Butz,
Heather Lind, and Vincent Piazza. Having the different voices helped to bring the characters to life and each seemed perfectly suited for their characters, while still doing a good job of portraying other characters.

Overall, I really loved this book. It was a great story and another example of how a historic novel can be a tool for social awareness and change.

Book review – The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider

I don’t usually review graphic novels or collections of comics, but this one is a favourite that’ll be added to my small, permanent collection.

The Shape of Ideas is the graphic version of all the best creativity books out there. Snider explores creativity and inspiration by illustrating the good, the bad, and the ugly of trying to be creative. While his focus is on the arts, a lot of his thoughts could easily relate to many other areas (research, business, etc.). He explores ambition, frustration, exploration, and those elusive eureka moments.

His illustrations are lovely, fun and colourful, and his ideas are conveyed in a clever and clear manner. Best of all, he’s using visual creativity to convey the ups and downs of creativity.

If you haven’t already seen his work, check out Incidental Comics. These are some of my favourites from the past year:

 

Book review – Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

28449207.jpgThere are a lot of things that I could talk about in a review of Strange the Dreamer: the beautiful writing, the interesting characters, the fascinating premise, the consequences of the different powers the gods had, or the library (seriously! – thought only briefly part of the story, it sounded pretty amazing). But, the thing that really struck me was how boldly Taylor dove into the grey areas between good and bad, or hero and monster.

A city is under threat by the gods in the citadel above them – young men and women are taken, used, and returned when no longer needed. A young man, mentally and emotionally broken by his capture, decides to rescue his people by slaying the gods all. All of them, even the children (god-spawn). But, a few children survive. The trauma of the slaying and of trying to survive combined with their own ignorance of the reasons for the slaughter leave them traumatized and just as full of hate as the humans below.

We are left with two groups, humans and god-spawn, each equally traumatized and full of hate. Taylor doesn’t take the easy way out by presenting us with simple good and evil. Instead, she shows us good that is also bad and evil that is also innocent. Through her story, she shows that that every story has two sides, but also that knowing the other’s side may not be enough to feel empathy because fear can blind us. She also explores how fear grows to hatred and how hatred is a disease that’s hard (impossible, even) to cure.

Overall, I found the story to be an easy and gripping read. But, for me, the thorough exploration of all the different sides to the story (and how one truth can blind you to other truths) was the best part of the story. The climax leaves many pretty much everything unresolved, but it also opens new doors with new revelations (this is going to be a series). While I wasn’t a fan of the can’t-be-together-OMG romance (I’m such a Scrooge in that regard), I’ll still be looking out for the next book in the series. I’m curious to see where Taylor goes with this and who, if anyone, “wins” in the end.