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When Mama Ain’t Happy…(You Know the Rest): Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Cover image of Happier at HomeAn enjoyable follow-up to The Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling memoir about her year of researching theories and following advice from happiness experts), Happier at Home is about Gretchen’s second happiness project – this time focusing on family and home life over the course of a school year. Kind of like a five-year status update, Happier at Home is the author’s book-length response to questions about what difference her year-long happiness project really made in her life and a continuation of her research into ways to feel happier and more appreciative of the many good things in her life.

She emphasizes in both books that her reason for pursuing these happiness projects isn’t that she’s unhappy, but that she wants to be more mindful of her good fortune on a daily basis and more consciously happy, not every moment like some kind of whacked-out Pollyanna, but over all. Some of her resolutions aimed at boosting her happiness at home require inconvenient effort or the tackling of unpleasant chores, but they contribute to her having a happier life in the long run – like knowing you will feel better after exercise, even if you don’t enjoy the exercising itself. She also stresses that the happiness project idea isn’t going to be helpful in cases of actual depression or overwhelmingly difficult situations; it’s for people who, like herself, are happy enough, but could become happier with some adjustments to the way they do things or view themselves.

One important lesson from my first happiness project was to recognize how happy I already am. As life goes wheeling along, I find it too easy to take my everyday happiness for granted, and to forget what really matters. I’ve long been haunted by a remark by the writer Colette: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I didn’t want to look back, at the end of my life or after some great catastrophe, and think, “Then we were so happy, if only we’d realized it.” I had everything I could wish for; I wanted to make my home happier by appreciating how much happiness was already there.”

I read The Happiness Project as a memoir, a stunt memoir along the lines of A. J. Jacobs‘ books or Julie and Julia by Julie Powell, where the author does something wacky or difficult for a period of time and writes about it. I don’t read many self-help books because I know I’m not ready to change anything major about myself or the way I do things, but I kept thinking of anecdotes from The Happiness Project even months after reading it, so it made an impression on me. Although the author’s books and blog may inspire readers to start their own happiness projects, the books aren’t really self-help but the author’s personal story. What makes each person happy is so individual that each happiness project has to be designed individually by the person embarking on it. Reading Happier at Home, I enjoyed learning about how she tweaked her original project, acknowledged herself to be a homebody at heart, and concentrated her efforts on creating a happier home and family life through changes in her own behavior, schedule, outlook, etc..

The author does talk a lot about herself, which I guess some reviewers found annoying in her first book, but it makes sense that she discusses her own thoughts and motivations, and uses them as examples in her book, since she can’t make resolutions for anyone but herself (although she admits that – like most wives and mothers – she would like to.) I also think she was trying not to reveal details of her life that would infringe on the privacy of her husband and two daughters. (Thankfully, she avoids the cringe-inducing over-sharing of Julie Powell’s second stunt memoir, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, for which she apprenticed herself to a butcher and revealed intimate details about her marriage and extramarital affair that must have made her husband squirm.)

Although it stands on its own, Happier at Home is best read as a follow-up to The Happiness Project. I would recommend The Happiness Project and Happier at Home to readers who enjoy memoirs of research projects with a touch of whimsy – like Drop Dead Healthy by A. J. Jacobs, Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, or A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Read an excerpt of Happier at Home here.

Enter each day over the next couple of weeks to win a copy of Happier at Home from the author’s Happiness Project page.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of Happier at Home signed by the author from HarperCollins during Book Expo America.

Happier at Home
Rubin, Gretchen
Crown, Sept. 4, 2012
$26.00 U.S., $31.00 (Can)

Bringing up Benj — The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman

Like Expecting Adam by Martha Beck and Raising Blaze by Debra Ginsberg, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (HarperCollins, Apr. 2011) by Priscilla Gilman  is a moving memoir by a devoted mother, who also happens to be a thoughtful observer and an excellent writer.
A former English professor who loves the poetry of Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Priscilla Gilman records her experience of raising a special-needs child and leaving academia. Although much of her experience will seem familiar to many parents, especially those with Asperger’s or some form of autism, she infuses her story with details and relates it to her experience of poetry (quoting it throughout) so that a reader doesn’t have to be a parent to be interested.
The author and her husband (who eventually separate) gradually realize that their first child, Benjamin, while an extraordinarily advanced preschooler in some ways, was extremely different from his peers in other ways, especially when dealing with social interactions and coping with disruptions in routine. At age three, Benjamin precociously reads complex material and recites from memory the poetry of Wordsworth and many others, for example, but can’t navigate stairs without help and never answers to his own name. His obsessive reading aloud — of signs, clothing labels, etc. — which his pediatrician and family had fondly thought of as quirky behavior and a sign of his quick intelligence, is finally labeled hyperlexia, a condition which is characterized by advanced word-recognition skills in conjunction with cognitive, social, and linguistic delays or disabilities.
The reader lives through Benjamin’s childhood with the author — from expectations of parenthood, through revision of those expectations, through denial and acceptance, and through many failures and successes as she puzzles out how to be the right kind of mother to Benjamin, as well as to her second son James.
The Anti-Romantic Child should appeal to readers of memoirs and popular books about cognitive science and psychology, such as books by Oliver Sacks.

Strange But True Stories

Spent a great day yesterday listening to entertaining panels of authors, publishing reps, and Library Journal editor Heather McCormack at the Massachusetts Library Association’s annual conference. In a session about stories that are “strange but true” from HarperCollins, two authors with Massachusetts connections dropped tantalizing details about their new and upcoming books.

Lost in Shangri-La by BU professor Mitchell Zuckoff sounds like the more exciting, about a daring mission to rescue three survivors of a plane crash. The plane carrying a group of military personnel and WACs out on a recreational flight goes down in a nearly inaccessible jungle valley in what was then Dutch New Guinea during World War II. Nicknamed and known as Shangri-La by American army personnel stationed there, the valley is home to native tribal peoples who have never been in contact with the outside world, and are rumored to be cannibals. If you weren’t at the library conference yesterday, the author’s interview on NPR was aired this morning and you can catch it on the NPR Web site. This sounds like a great one to recommend to readers who like history to read like fiction.

More personal and still intriguing, the other “strange but true” story, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, is by Molly Birnbaum who grew up in the Boston area and now lives in Cambridge, Mass. Having fallen in love with cooking in college, she is preparing to enter the Culinary Institute when she is hit by a car while out for a run. Among other serious injuries, her skull is badly fractured in the accident, which causes her to lose her sense of smell — a devastating loss for anyone, but, for this young woman, it shatters her dream of becoming a chef. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way will be released in June.

It was very moving to listen to Molly Birnbaum tell about her accident and long period of recovery. You can find out more about her and how she researched the science of smell for this book (and get recipes!) on My Madeleine, a blog about food, scent, and her experience with both. This sounds like it will be great for the cooking memoir fans and well as readers who like a touching personal story with some neuroscience thrown in.

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill & An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

>Two women — one nearing the end of life and one whose child was stillborn — write about death. These two moving memoirs are as clearsighted and honest as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking.

Diana Athill, a book editor for fifty years and author of two other memoirs, writes about her outlook on life from the vantage point of age 89.

All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being “over seventy” is being old; suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up. (Somewhere Towards the End, p. 13)

Former librarian Elizabeth McCracken is the author of a collection of short stories and two novels, The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again. She and her husband were living and writing in France during her first pregnancy which had been gloriously trouble-free until the very end; their child, a boy, died before he could be born.

I don’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve or put it away in cold storage. I don’t want to fetishize, I don’t want to repress, I want his death to be what it is: a fact. Something that people know without me having to explain it. I don’t feel the need to tell my story to everyone, but when people ask, Is this your first child? I can’t bear any of the possible answers.
I’m not ready for my first child to fade into history. (An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, p. 15)

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