Monthly Archives: March 2016

‘Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying’ by Marie Kondo

Spark Joystarstarstar“Keep only what you regularly use, or really love” has long been my rule for tidying. This book says basically that, only changing the ‘really love’ to ‘spark joy.’ I do like that–our lives should be about joy and by selecting some things and discarding others, we focus on those things that do enhance our living. Even a toilet plunger can ‘spark joy’ because think about not having kept it!

Folding Clothes


The rest of Kondo’s book (the KonMari method of tidying) was not really anything new to me, although based on some reviews I read, many consider it life changing. I wonder if it was boring to me because the author is really building a whole book around a few simple ideas. There were long winded chapters on how to fold clothes so they can stand up in a drawer with the assumption that is what you have–I have mostly shelves, so her system doesn’t even work for me.

Suggestions that are just common sense were presented as if they were sagely wise revelations such as: Gather things that are alike. Tidy items by category, not room. Clean out the insides of closets first so there is more room to put other things away. Provide a space for each thing and keep it in its place. Not earth shattering stuff…A place for everything etc–your mother may have mentioned something about that. She also anthropomorphizes which annoyed me…balling socks is ‘cruel’ and clothes hanging in a closet that is empty end up feeling ‘chilly’ while those in a squished closet ‘can’t breathe.’ She also ritually thanks each item she discards and says farewell to it, as if it would hear and understand and not take the rejection personally.

Her chapter on the kitchen was ok. It deals with the tension between keeping things at hand and keeping spaces free of clutter and easy to clean. When beginning a recipe or meal, she recommends a common system…take out all ingredients and tools before you begin and return them to storage as you finish with them. Her suggestion for keeping compost in a plastic bag in the freezer is a good one for hot buggy climates (my daughter does that in South Africa!).

The book itself, as object, is very tidy, complete with its own lime green elastic band bookmark! Although for me the book did not spark joy, but since I borrowed it from the library, I can joyfully return it–thank you and farewell!

Note: This is a companion volume to Kondo’s first book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up which I have not read.

‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy BartonstarstarstarstarLucy Barton finds herself in hospital for 9 weeks fighting a mysterious virus. Her estranged mother suddenly shows up and stays for 5 days. It is this intimate visit that becomes the catalyst for Lucy (and the reader) to meander back into Lucy’s childhood, marked by the shame of extreme poverty and abuse. Her mother spends a lot of time talking about the secrets of others, while never being willing to reveal any of her own. Sitting patiently at Lucy’s bedside through night and day, refusing a cot, her mother says, “I’m used to catnapping. You learn to when you don’t feel safe.” Lucy must come to terms with the scars of her past as well as her vocation, marriage, and family relationships.

Strout is always in full command of a story. What I love about her writing is that she can evoke powerful emotion without an iota of sentimentality. Many things about Lucy’s childhood are merely hinted at as she explores this strange mother daughter relationship through some harrowing memories. Not all of it is spelled out on purpose. Strout respects the reader enough to leave gaps that can be filled in different ways depending on what the individual reader brings to the reading. It is at first glance a simple story, character driven, and sparse, but very rich in texture. The slim novel has very short chapters and lots of white space…it felt like the publisher too was leaving room for interpretation and reflection. But Strout is the kind of writer who can use few words to say an awful lot. Olive Kitteredge is my favourite of her books so far. Still The Burgess Boys and Amy & Isabelle to go!

‘Gut’ by Giulia Enders

GutstarstarstarstarI love learning about the human body and the field of medicine. The human body is amazing. As I was reading this book, the phrase “fearfully and wonderfully made” kept cropping up in my mind. Enders has written a fascinating guide to the lowly digestive system–an undervalued miracle of an organ that may be hidden from view and kept from polite dinner conversation, but hugely affects our health and well-being.

Gut IllustrationEvery morning just before we run for the bus/metro or hop into our cars, we gobble down our toast and tea, breakfast cereal, or coffee and croissant, and never give another thought to the fact that our insides have gone to work as well. Enders presents a lively look at the gut for the layperson. She tackles the topic with good humour and sound medical knowledge–always a winning combination when discussing things like bacteria, stool formation, and passing gas. Whimsical illustrations by her sister Jill, are instructive for ‘digesting’ the information. In addition to describing how the system all works, she also presents a case for close links between the gut and the brain which I found particularly interesting. The phrase ‘gut reaction’ may be more accurate than we ever realized!

‘Stellaluna’ by Janell Cannon

StellalunastarstarstarstarstarThis is a gorgeous children’s picture book from the 90’s. I’m not sure how it never came across my radar before. Thanks for the heads up Kathy (via K & M)!

It is a tender story of family, friendship, and love but far from schmalzy. A fruit bat is separated from her mother and ends up living with a bird family. There is hilarious humour around the fact that birds and bats are very different creatures indeed! But there are also powerful messages about how to appreciate and value difference in yourself and in others. The illustrations are luminously deep and capture remarkable moments in the story.

Enjoy the story and pictures here, beautifully read by Pamela Reed.

‘Balancing Act’ by Joanna Trollope

Balancing ActstarstarstarBalancing Act is about a family run pottery business in Stoke-on-Trent. Trollope’s novels are character driven and focus on family relationships. I find her novels elegant and pleasant to read. In this one she explores work/life balance in a family business, with women as breadwinners and men as homemakers. When she was researching this book she visited Emma Bridgewater, a farmhouse kitchen pottery company that has knocked the ‘cups and saucers’ out of the market in the UK in terms of middle class popularity and in terms of being quintessentially British. In fact Emma claims some of those other companies now print just “England” on the bottom because they are actually made in China. Hers say “Made in England” and they are. In fact each piece is fashioned by hand and has the initials of the decorator painted on the bottom for a personal touch. The family in Balancing Act is not the Bridgewaters, but all of the detail about manufacturing pottery is.Emma Bridgewater

Joanna Trollope interviewed Emma Bridgewater last week at my favourite London Marylebone bookstore and anyone with an £8 ticket could get a free glass of wine and 20% off at the Emma Bridgewater shop just down the street! What a deal! And I learned some things about Patternspongeware, colour palettes, the challenges of design, and also got some insights from Trollope into the writing of the novel. Emma Bridgewater has become a writer herself. Pattern is a beautifully photographed coffee table book with descriptions and history of all of the designs created by her and her husband Matthew.

‘Modern Romance’ by Aziz Ansari

Modern RomancestarstarstarstarThis is a brilliant new roadmap of romance in the digital age, presented by actor and comedian Aziz Ansari, who you may know from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. Ansari teams up with sociologist Eric Klinenberg to discover how communicating through smart phones and social media are affecting a generation of digital natives. What are the subtle pleasures, problems, and stresses associated with things like online dating, using texting as the primary dating communication, and creating profiles designed to “sell you”on How has smart phone technology affected the seedier side of love life like sexting, infidelity, and breakups via Facebook?

From long lasting monogamous relationships to casual sex, Ansari and his research crew do a fine job of highlighting the romantic landscape today as compared to generations ago when you were more likely to marry the boy down the street. Having a whole world of possibilities at your fingertips is a huge advantage to that scenario, or is it? Does it create more anxiety and higher expectations for finding your ‘soulmate?’ Is the tyranny of choice creating more stress over too many options and actually creating less satisfaction… ‘hmmm, this is good, but might there be something I missed still out there?’

Being a comedian, Ansari is frank and funny. He does use some rude language to get laughs but that didn’t bother me. His humour helps with what could be awkward conversations about intimate issues. The book is entertaining and insightful–a timely and thoughtful cultural study from a sharp comedic voice. Geared to the 25-40 set, I think it also has value for older folks who complain about “those kids always on their phones.” Every generation has its own stuff to deal with and understanding, not judgement, is key.

Here is the author’s essay in Time which gives a great overview of the main points.

’84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff

84 Charing Cross Roadstarstarstar“Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and N0ble’s grimy, marked up school-boy copies.”

So starts this real life 20 year correspondence between a brash American writer in New York and a proper British gentleman who works in the Marks & Co. bookstore in London in 1949. She is witty, informal and sarcastic while he, in sharp contrast, is highly professional and extremely polite. Yet they develop an affection for each other over the years. He sends her the books she is looking for and she sends him care packages from America since Britain was at that time still dealing with shortages and rationing after the war. I enjoyed the first half of the book with the letters more than the second half which is about Hanff’s visit to London after the correspondence ended.

This book is charming in its old world feel, no doubt because these letters were still written on paper and sent through the mail in envelopes with stamps. That charm bubble would certainly be burst for any bibliophile who would now go looking for Marks & Co. (as I did on Google Maps). 84 Charing Cross now houses a McDonald’s restaurant! There is a movie adaptation produced by Mel Brooks starring Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins, and Judi Dench. Here is the trailer.

‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magicstarstarstarstar
Q. What is creativity?

A. The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

Elizabeth Gilbert is the famous author of Eat Pray Love. Some people loved that book and found full resonance with her quest to find herself on a round-the-world journey, while others thought she was not quite funny enough and too self-absorbed. I might have been slightly in the latter camp, but after attending an interview with her and listening to her speak about her life and writing, I gained a new appreciation and respect for this author.

In Big Magic Gilbert champions creativity and does a fine job of describing the creative process. She believes that creative living is necessary for a healthy and sane lifestyle and makes a good case for it. Her light and humorous touch is spot on and she is very honest and open about her own approach to the art of writing. She uses the vulnerability of her own story to teach lessons about what to do and what not to do. Fear is the worst barrier to creative expression. Excuses may include “no time, no talent, fear of the unknown, fear of criticism. etc.” She is practical about her call to creativity, advising people not to give up their day jobs just yet, but to feel free to explore and follow their curiosity and do the things that spark joy. Creative living doesn’t have to be art, music, or writing…it can be mushroom farming, gardening, travel planning, cooking, collecting, dancing, knitting, photography, blogging, or whatever, and the best part of all–you don’t have to be good at what you are doing, you just have to thoroughly enjoy it. Like Brené Brown says, perfectionism is dangerous and can be a block to creativity. Let’s do those things we enjoy without setting impossible standards for ourselves. Of course many of us already have hobbies or creative work and have discovered the joy of what this bring to our lives. For those people, this book is affirming.

Aside from a weird theory about ideas having a life of their own and latching on to receptive humans, I found her advice about creativity, handling rejection, and dealing with doubt to be helpful and down to earth. I really enjoyed the book and would not hesitate to recommend it.