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)

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

More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 2

Speed dating with the Must Read Massachusetts Authors at the Massachusetts Library Association conference on Wednesday, May 9, was so much fun. Six of the authors whose books have been selected as finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards in one of four categories (Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult) had just 4½ minutes at six different tables crowded with librarians to get each group excited to read their books.

Photo of the six authors

L to R: Laura Harrington, Diana Gordon, Kimberly Marcus, Jef Czekaj, Lawrence Vincent, and Leonard Rosen

Book cover image of All Cry Chaos

Leonard Rosen drew on his academic and nonfiction writing background to write his first literary thriller.

Leonard Rosen‘s experience in teaching writing classes at Bentley University and Harvard University came through as soon as he sat down and hooked the attention of the classroom table with a show-and-tell. “The idea for All Cry Chaos came to me when I was on a flight from Boston to L.A. and looked out the window and saw this,” he said, showing the group a enlarged aerial photograph of ridge lines branching out from a main trunk in a dry desert landscape. Flipping through a succession of photos of hands, bloodshot eyes, trees, and a cabbage leaf (“even my appetizer at dinner”) he explained how he began to notice a similar pattern all over the place. “It made me wonder, ‘Is there a Pattern-maker?’ That is to say, ‘Is there a God?’ And that is the question the character in my book takes on.” His main character, Henri Poincaré, is close to retirement as an Interpol agent when a prominent mathematician/Harvard professor is dramatically murdered at the World Trade Organization meeting in Amsterdam. Poincaré gets drawn into the victim’s complex theories and mathematical discoveries to solve the case.

Cover image of book Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible

D.M. Gordon’s book is from Hedgerow Press, a new poetry imprint from Levellers Press in Western Mass.

Somewhat sadly, Diana Gordon, whose second collection of poetry has the intriguing title Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible, had to endure a moment of awkward silence when she sat down and asked the group at the table: “Do you like to read poetry?” When no one answered, however, she smoothly segued into the relationship of authors and librarians (“Writers need libraries and libraries need writers.”) and read a short poem from her book. She suggested offering poetry readings at the library where people would read and discuss other people’s poems, not just share their own poetry, and that librarians would not have to be poetry experts to facilitate a group like this. She herself facilitates a weekly poetry discussion group at the Forbes Library in Northampton.

Photo of Jef Czekaj

Jef Czekaj of Somerville explaining how he came to write and illustrate  the children’s book, A Call for a New Alphabet.

Jef Czekaj is a cartoonist, children’s book author/illustrator, and a D.J. He uses his real name for his writing and illustrating (“Czekaj” is pronounced CHECK-eye,) but D.J.s under a pseudonym. His Must-Read children’s picture book, A Call for a New Alphabet, is about an exasperated letter X. Jef took the confessional approach at our table, announcing straightaway, “I was a linguistics major, and when I graduated, I realized I couldn’t do anything with my linguistics degree.” Luckily, he found an artistic niche that also allows him to use his fondness for language. His books Hip and Hop, Don’t Stop!, Cat Secrets, and The Circulatory Story were all Junior Library Guild selections.

See the previous post, More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part One, for the speed-dating skinny on Kimberly Marcus, author of the YA novel Exposed; L.M. Vincent, author of the quirky microhistory In Search of Motif No. 1; and Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss.

All six of the Must-Read authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. The full list of Must Read authors will be posted by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the poster showing all of the Must Read titles.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

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More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 1

Authors wait as they are introduced

Authors appear a little nervous waiting for their first table assignments.

Speed Dating with the Authors sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book was a big hit for the second year in a row, with over a hundred attendees on the opening day of the Massachusetts Library Association conference. Twelve finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards have been selected as Must Reads in each of four categories – Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult. Six intrepid Must-Read authors agreed to take part in matchmaking with a roomful of librarians eagerly looking for their newest favorite book. All of the authors were great sports about being rotated around the six packed tables to talk about their books, their writing process, and themselves.

Photo of Kimberly Marcus

Author Kimberly Marcus drew on her knowledge as a clinical social worker to write Exposed, her first YA novel.

The action of Kimberly Marcus‘s first young adult novel, Exposed, set in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, begins when 16-year-old Liz – a gifted photographer – learns that her brother is accused of raping her best friend. How did she come to write the entire novel in free verse? A friend suggested writing a scene she was stuck on as a poem to get unstuck. That advice helped her get unstuck, and later on, it helped again. That’s when she realized “the idea of snapshots and verse really worked” and she wrote the whole book that way. Kimberly Marcus has also written a children’s picture book, Scritch-Scratch A Perfect Match. A North Dartmouth resident, she lives near the beach and has set Exposed in a fictional town on the Cape.

Cover image of In Search of Motif No. 1

In Search of Motif No. 1 by L. M. Vincent

L.M. Vincent’s “quirky” new book, In Search of Motif No. 1: The History of a Fish Shack, intrigued librarians with its eye-catching cover art and Rockport theme. Comfortable with an audience, Lawrence Vincent (a multi-talented humorist and playwright, as well as radiologist in a Boston hospital) talked about how he came to write about the iconic Cape Ann shack lost in the Blizzard of ’78 and later rebuilt. “I didn’t even know what a fish shack was when I moved to Massachusetts,” he said, but he became curious about the proliferation of paintings and photographs – good and bad – with the shack as their subject. Researching the “truly fabulous pieces” that came out of the heyday of the artists’ colony there (1920-1946) led him to write the history of the shack, which is, he says, “in many ways, the history of small-town America.”

Blurry photo of Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington’s first novel, is getting a lot of buzz.

Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss, her first novel, is also a playwright. She made instant friends at the table I was at by sitting down and declaring, “Librarians are my favorite people.” A Gloucester resident and native of Rochester, New York, Laura said that her own family’s history (Her father fought in World War II and her two brothers in Vietnam) led her to write about the war in Iraq. “I want to get people thinking about the war,” she said, “but I hope the book will also get people thinking about a girl. Alice Bliss, centered around a 15-year-old daughter’s relationship with her father, is about the Iraq War but is “really a classic coming-of-age story,” she said. Alice Bliss has also been named a Best Adult Book for Teens by School Library Journal.

All six of the authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. Part Two of this blog post will talk about Jef Czekaj, author/illustrator of A Call for a New Alphabet; D. M. Gordon, author of the poetry collection Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible; and Leonard Rosen’s literary thriller All Cry Chaos.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

The full list of Must Read authors will be posted soon by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the beautiful poster that premiered at the Speed Dating with the Must Read Authors yesterday.

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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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