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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
978-0-37-88878-1
$26.00 U.S., $31.00 (Can)

Waiting on Wednesday – The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event hosted at Breaking the Spine that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Cover image of The Smitten Kitchen

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Deb Perelman

Publication Date: October 30, 2012

Fans of cooking blogs have probably already discovered The Smitten Kitchen and preordered their copies of this cookbook, but for anyone who hasn’t, it’s coming out October 30th. Not quite in time for me to get it for my birthday, but (hint, hint) it will make a great Christmas gift for any one who likes cookbooks with recipes and realistic instructions that make you feel as though you’ve got a knowledgeable friend (not a professional chef with tons of equipment) in the kitchen with you. Not only does it have tons of delicious-sounding recipes like Cinnamon Toast French Toast, but it will also open and stay open on the counter or table as a cookbook should.

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Decade of Decay: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Cover image of The Lola QuartetIf it’s true that your twenties are the “Defining Decade” – the crucial, formative years that determine how the rest of your life will go – then the troubled young adults in Emily St. John Mandel’s third novel, The Lola Quartet, are definitely screwed. Their lives have all gone off the rails, somewhere along the line. Depression and decay lurk everywhere in the oppressive heat of Sebastian, Florida, the town where they grew up and to which they eventually return.

The third novel by Canadian-American author Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet is composed of vignettes, whose order at first appears random and tangential, before their connections and intersections gradually become apparent. Ten years after high school graduation, when they dissolved the Lola Quartet and went their separate ways, the four former members of the prize-winning high school jazz ensemble – Gavin, Daniel, Sasha, and Jack – are brought back into tangential contact with each other through their connection to Sasha’s younger half-sister – the tough, vulnerable, and elusive Anna.

The novel’s structure and style seems inspired by the style of quick-shifting gypsy jazz music, as performed by the real-life master guitarist Django Reinhart, who is idolized by Liam Deval, one of the many musicians in the novel. Here’s the description, from early in the book, of Liam Deval’s jazz guitar duo that Gavin is listening to after his life has imploded. Gavin has a sense that these performances he is witnessing are momentous, but doesn’t know that Liam Deval plays another role in his story, as well:

Arthur Morelli was older, an unsmiling man in his late thirties or early forties who played with a heavy swing. In his solos he wheeled out into wild tangents, he pushed the music to the edge before he came back to the rhythm. Liam Deval looked about Gavin’s age, late twenties or early thirties, the star of the show: a perfect counterpoint to Morelli, all shimmering arpeggios and light sharp tones. Gavin had never seen anyone’s hands move so quickly. His skill was astonishing. Jazz slipped into gypsy music and back again, a thrilling hybrid form. Gavin knew it wasn’t new, what they were doing, but it was the first time he’d encountered it live.

The Lola Quartet’s structure of intersecting stories building atmospheric tension reminded me of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. If you liked Await Your Reply, you should definitely add The Lola Quartet to your to-read list. (Just keep in mind the description of Await Your Reply in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: “ambitious, gripping and unrelentingly bleak.”)

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Research out the Wazoo: Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs (Audio)

Like shredded zucchini secretly added to the chocolate cake recipe, a good amount of health-related information is slipped through with the humor in Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, the fourth book by Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs, who read his own book for the audio edition. Although the author doesn’t have the reading voice of a professional narrator, he has a good delivery and it makes sense to have him telling his own story, especially as he writes a lot about his family, especially his 96-year-old grandfather, a well-known New York City labor lawyer in his day, and his health-conscious aunt Marti (who signs her email with “Your eccentric aunt Marti.”)
A.J. Jacobs is known for tackling wacky projects like reading the whole Encyclopedia Britannica or trying to live by the precepts of the Bible (all of them) and writing about his experiences (The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself and The Year of Living Biblically). He also wrote The Guinea Pig Diaries,  a series of essays outlining his briefer adoption of other extreme ways of life (published in paperback under the title My Life As an Experiment) which I wrote about here.
In Drop Dead Healthy, the author researches and tries out various health and diet regiments under the skeptical eye of his wife Julie in an attempt to transform himself from an out-of-shape, forty-something writer into the healthiest man alive. (And I thought my husband was a man of extremes.) Each chapter deals with a different body part or aspect of overall health (e.g. “The Stomach: The Quest to Eat Right”; “The Heart: The Quest to Get My Blood Pumping”; and “The Butt: The Quest to Avoid Sedentary Life.”) He shares many, many snippets from his research with readers, and especially enjoys imparting contradictory results from scientific studies.
A.J. Jacobs was asked by Julie, his long-suffering wife, on behalf of her and their three young children, to stop ignoring the state of his body’s health after he had a sudden, life-threatening attack of pneumonia, so his wacky diet and exercise antics have a grain of seriousness, and are based on actual scientific or pseudoscientific health claims. However, this audiobook is best listened to as a humourous memoir, rather than for its health-related advice about the Paleo Diet or about one should or should not wear a bike helmet all the time, even when inside.
A.J.’s willingness to embarrass both himself and others in the pursuit of ultimate health (and the fulfillment of his book contract) does have its limits, but they are far beyond the average reader’s. His journalistic forays into extreme calorie restriction (very brief), eating only superfoods, calming meditation, and twenty-minute-a-week workouts, and other lifestyles are unscientific and his meetings with their proponents have a Best in Show mockumentary feel at times. If it were intended as serious journalism, Drop Dead Healthy would obviously miss the mark with its scattershot approach, but the bottom line is the book is funny and occasionally poignant, and it’s meant to be funny and occasionally poignant, so it’s good.
The Drop Dead Healthy audiobook edition includes A.J.’s lists, progress reports, vital signs, and quirky Harper’s Index-like statistics but one thing I discovered while writing this review that audiobook listeners will miss out on is the author’s extreme indexing (done with help from Sydney Wolfe Cohen), humorous in itself. Check out the index of the print edition on Google Books here.

Drop Dead Healthy (Audio)
Jacobs, A.J.
Narrated by the author
Simon and Schuster, 2012
978-0-7435-9876-7
10 hrs., 10 min.
9 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from Simon & Schuster through Audiobook Jukebox. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.

Other opinions on the Drop Dead Healthy audiobook (mostly good):
Devourer of Books
5 Minutes for Books
Shelah Books It

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont could become A Separate Peace for a new generation. But, in a coming of age story, what a difference 40 years make!
However similar in setting (New England prep schools) and themes (friendship, betrayal, guilt) they may be, The Starboard Sea isn’t likely to replace A Separate Peace as assigned reading, except in maybe the most progressive of schools – due to the adult activities of the late ’80s teenagers in this novel, who are more sophisticated and are growing up faster (at least, in some ways) than the prep school boys just before World War II in John Knowles’ classic novel. I don’t want to spoil the author’s careful construction of The Starboard Sea by giving away details of the narrative that are revealed over the course of the story, so I’m just going to speak very generally about the plot in this review.
Jason Prosper has washed up at a third-tier prep school on the Massachusetts coast for his senior year (Class of 1988) after the death of his roommate, best friend, and sailing partner at his last boarding school.

For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.

Jason doesn’t get a completely fresh start at Bellingham Academy  – where, he explains, “If you could pay, you could stay” – because he’s trailed by rumors, and a couple of old acquaintances have landed there ahead of him. Known to be a gifted sailor, Jason is immediately recruited by the sailing coach, but sailing is a pleasure he can’t allow himself, until joining the team becomes a means to an end other than winning races. Jason restricts himself to explaining nautical terms and how to sail to Aidan, a boat-shy fellow student, a girl with no real friends at Bellingham, whom Jason’s jock buddies ostracize and taunt but Jason secretly befriends.
The tension in The Starboard Sea swells gradually, blending events from the present and the past so well that I never got the impatient (“Tell me the secret already!”) feeling that I sometimes get when the first-person narrator holds back something big. (In addition to A Separate Peace, The Starboard Sea is getting compared in blurbs to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I think The Starboard Sea is better.)
If you’re in the mood for atmospheric fiction; you don’t mind a book whose characters aren’t unambiguously good or bad; and the privileges of the wealthy won’t make you so outraged that you won’t want to read about them, I highly recommend The Starboard Sea. I hope the author has the draft of a second novel well underway.

Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from St. Martin’s Press through NetGalley.

The Starboard Sea
Dermont, Amber
St. Martin’s Press, February 2012
Hardcover
9780312642808
$24.99

Read Janet Maslin’s review of The Starboard Sea in The New York Times.

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The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

The New Yorker reviewer James Wood beat me to reviewing The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, doing a much better job of it, of course. (Beware —contains some plot spoilers.) Like him, though, I was struck by the jacket copy calling The Privileges “an odyssey of a couple touched by fortune, changed by time, and guided above all else by their epic love for each other.” The Privileges is a compelling story of two narcissists with ambitions that coincide, whose physical beauty, family connections, and boldness ensure them money and power, but romantic love story? No.
The Privileges begins with the golden couple, Adam and Cynthia Morey,  getting married young, quickly discarding parents and their pasts; then leaps forward to the couple in their New York City apartment, dissatisfied with their stalled upward mobility — him, in the financial sector without an MBA; her, at home with two young children. Later, another leap, and the Moreys’ grown children become characters, young adults struggling in the cocoon of their parents’ now-immense wealth.
Adam and Cynthia Morey are fascinating, the way a glittering-eyed cobra is. Were you to meet them in real life (in the rarefied circles of New York philanthropy or finance) you wouldn’t really like them. And they would barely acknowledge your existence.
If you liked The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (whose blurb is prominently on the front cover), pick up this memorable novel (the author’s fifth) of characters seemingly headed full-tilt for self-destruction or, at least, comeuppance.
Jonathan Dee is a former senior editor of The Paris Review and teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.

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