The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

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Title: The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent A Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.
Author: Gretchen Rubin
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Nonfiction, self-help

I seem to have a special weakness for the “stunt genre” style of memoir: where an author spends a year doing something extreme, and then writes about it. Books like Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, A Year of No Sugar, and now The Happiness Project have all graced my bookshelves. They are usually fun reads, written in an entertaining and engaging style.

The Happiness Project is definitely one of the better ones I have read from this genre! The book follows author Gretchen Rubin as she dedicates an entire year to improving her personal happiness. Each month is focused on a different theme: vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, and attitude. She sets up a personal resolutions chart, adding to it as each month passes.

Coming off ofjust reading  A Year of No Sugar, which I did not like, and browsing the plethora of 1 star reviews on Goodreads for The Happiness Project, I was prepared to hate this book. Rubin leads a thoroughly privileged life…I was skeptical as to how she would pull this off.

You can tell straight away that she has done a tremendous amount of research. She references philosophers, happiness researchers, psychologists, theologians and great spiritual masters. Each monthly experiment is backed up by detailed research. I loved that! Too many non-fiction authors that are targeting a mainstream audience fail to add in resource lists, and footnotes; Rubin did not fall into that trap.

Some of my key takeaways from The Happiness Project:

“Be Gretchen”. Throughout the book she is continually reminded to be herself. It is the first of her twelve personal commandments (another great idea). I, too, need this mantra, to “Be Alisia”. To let go of all the things I am not and enjoy and embrace the things I am. For example, I am not a crafty person at all. I am not very good at it, and more importantly, I don’t enjoy it. So, a few years ago, I let it go. No more did I struggle with ridiculously complicated childhood craft projects for M. You will never see me volunteer to make the decorations for the school book fair, or change out the themed bulletin boards. It was one of the best things I ever did!

THINK. Think before speaking, and listen before you talk.

T – is it True?
H – is it helpful?
I – is it inspiring?
N – is it necessary?
K – is it kind?

Nagging Tasks. She has a small piece of advice in the January chapter that has turned out to be tremendously helpful – to schedule one hour every week on your calendar to tackle nagging tasks, those annoying household chores that have no real deadline. I immediately tried this out, adding a weekly “Power Hour” to iCal, and in only two hours across two weeks, I have successfully: replaced a broken light switch plate, renewed M’s passport, sorted and purged all of our old reusable water bottles and food storage containers, took a stack of clothing donations to a local nonprofit, bought new cutting boards, cleaned out my Inbox, and made progress on my huge stack of papers that need to be scanned and filed digitally. This small piece of advice has definitely been a mood booster!

Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Overcome the need for people to applaud the nice things you do, that are in actuality just a regular part of life. Start telling yourself, “I’m doing this for myself. Because I want to.”

Spend out. Use the nice stationary instead of hoarding it. Buy new toothbrushes regularly. It’s amazing how much that actually hit home! We are quite good at using items until they fall apart. In many ways, that is a good thing, in some ways it is not. Toothbrushes should definitely be replaced before they look…well, like you used it to clean the shower grout. Razors should be thrown out before they get rusty, not one month after the first rust spot appears. Etc.

Forget about results. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

Give positive reviews. Enthusiasm may seem easier than criticism, but in fact it is harder to embrace something than to disdain it. Stop making unnecessarily negative statements: “The food was too rich” or “There’s nothing worth reading in the paper.” Instead, look for ways to be sincerely enthusiastic.

The Happiness Project has been out for a few years now. Have you read it before? Did it make any lasting impact on your life?

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Read Watch Play #9

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Good morning! Today’s post will link up to The Sunday Salon, and the Sunday Post. Read, Watch, Play is a monthly round-up of bookish and non-bookish entertainment going on in my home this week. Feel free to join in and let me know what fun you have had recently!

What I’m Reading

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I have recently been reading more memoirs that I typically do, and this is the first one this year that I am truly enjoying. Although this was published back in 2009, I have found that NOW is exactly the right time for me to be reading The Happiness Project. 

I recently finished both The Mysterious Affair of Styles and The Secret Adversary, the first two books ever published by Agatha Christie. I don’t plan on doing a full review for either of them, and wanted to mention them here!

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first Hercule Poirot novel. While it was an enjoyable read, I had forgotten the problematic and subtle racism and anti-Semitism that sometimes pops up in Agatha Christie’s mysteries.

The Secret Adversary is a Tommy and Tuppence mystery. This my first time reading a book about these two fictional detectives, and I look forward to devouring the other Tommy & Tuppence books! It was a fun little tromp into a light espionage story, and very different from most of AC’s other mysteries.

What I’m Watching

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Lion. If you see this one, make sure to bring the box of tissues! Since I am currently going through my own personal reunion process as an adult adoptee, the emotional turmoil underlying Dev Patel’s character hit quite close to home. Dev Patel does an incredible job of bringing this true story to life on the big screen. I can’t wait to read the book.

What I’m Playing

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In our house, science experiments are so much fun they are considered play! In December, M received a 12-month gift subscription to Little Passports Science Expeditions subscription box. She has received the first two boxes so far, and they have both been fun, educational, and entertaining! Experiments included so far: forensic fingerprint analysis, DNA extraction from fruit, a volcano set, make your own snow, a magnet lab, electromagnets, and a reproduction of the northern lights! Additionally, each box comes with a new mystery to solve with characters Sam and Sofia. I highly recommend it for 8-10 year olds who have an interest in STEAM or STEM.

What are you up to on this lovely Sunday and longer President’s Day weekend?

Book Review – Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

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Title: A Year of No Sugar: A Memoir

Author: Eve O. Schaub

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Genre: Non-fiction memoir, Food

It’s Dinnertime. Do You Know Where Your Sugar is Coming From?

Most likely everywhere. Sure, it’s in ice cream and cookies, but what scared Eve O. Schaub was the secret world of sugar–hidden in bacon, crackers, salad dressing, pasta sauce, chicken broth, and baby food.

With her eyes open by the work of obesity expert Dr. Robert Lustig and others, Eve challenged her husband and two school-age daughters to join her on a quest to eat no added sugar for an entire year.

Along the way, Eve uncovered the real costs of our sugar-heavy American diet–including diabetes, obesity, and increased incidences of health problems such as heart disease and cancer. The stories, tips, and recipes she shares throw fresh light on questionable nutritional advice we’ve been following for years and show that it is possible to eat at restaurants and go grocery shopping–with less and even no added sugar.

Year of No Sugar is what the conversation about “kicking the sugar addiction” looks like for a real American family–a roller coaster of unexpected discoveries and challenges.

My opinion about the Year of No Sugar fluctuated wildly while I was reading it, from hating it tremendously, to thinking it was mildly okay towards the end.

The basic premise of Schaub’s memoir is a sound one…sugar IS everywhere. I just came off of a month of following the Whole 30 plan, used by many, including myself, as a dietery reset to get back on track towards eating a whole foods, healthy diet. During the Whole 30 you cut out many things: grains, dairy, alcohol, corn, soy, legumes, and sugar. While I modified slighlty – I kept in brown rice and quinoa – the hardest aspect of Whole 30? Cutting sugar.

Because.It.Is.Everywhere. Practically every condiment contains sugar: pickles, ketchup, mayo, relish, etc. It’s in salad dressings, chicken and beef stock, sauces, deli meat, breads, bacon, sausages, pasta sauce, prepared soups, sushi, smoothies…it is literally everywhere.

After Schaub discovered this after watching a Youtube video by Dr. Robert Lustig, she decided to set off on living a year without sugar, including her whole family in the experiment. Now this is where I started to have major problems with the misleading title and concept of her book.

Because they didn’t live a Year of No Sugar. Hell, with all of the exceptions, I’m not even sure they lived a week with no sugar. Eve makes a distinction between fructose and dextrose. She cut out fructose, including fruit juice (preferring to eat fruit in its natural form). But, from the way her memoir is written, it sounded like most nights of the week, she still made a dessert. Her exceptions included:

  • The family had one dessert per month that contained sugar
  • Each family member could pick one exception per person, a sugary food that didn’t count and which they could have at any time throughout the year. Eve chose wine, her husband Diet Dr. Pepper, and her two girls jam.
  • The kids had a third exception: they had autonomy outside the home, when their parents were not present (i.e. birthday parties, school, etc), to make their own decision on whether or not to eat any sugary treats offered.

Having just come off of the Whole 30, the very best thing that I did to help cut sugar cravings was to follow the guideline of not allowing any substitutions that resembled dessert. No gluten-free angel food cake made with coconut “sugar” and almond flour. No banana “ice cream” or avocado chocolate pudding or raw brownie bites. The idea behind the Whole 30 reasoning is that indulging in sweets – even with no sugar added – is reinforcing the behaviors that you are trying to change. I was skeptical, but at the end of 30 days I can see with absolute certainty that my taste buds have completely changed as far as sugar is concerned.

Later in her memoir, Eve started baking with dextrose. All told, from the way the book read, it seemed like they ate more desserts during their Year of No Sugar than our family did before embarking on the Whole 30. She spends most of her time in her memoir describing the various ways she tried to sweeten her foods without breaking her resolution. Ultimately, the whole book feels wildly arbitrary and hyper-controlling all at the same time.

She also puts forward a dangerous idea: that cutting out sugar may be the magic cure-all for all of Western societies ailments. Life is not that simple. Meanwhile, the family had no problems indulging in other unhealthy foods during the Year of No Sugar.

The writing style is engaging in fun, but I can’t support the majority of the content. And when you get to the end, there is a lovely recipe section, but what recipes does she include? Desserts. Not only her “unsweetened” desserts (made with dextrose), but the recipes for her once-a-month sugar treats. I found it all highly ironic.

I successfully cut out all sugar for more than a month, and since that month ended, I have only had a sugary treat once: dark chocolate with almonds. It fundamentally changed the way my body tastes sweets, and I plan on continuing long-term with a drastically lower amount of added sugar in my diet. I will keep using the packaged foods I found that do not contain added sugar as a replacement for like items that do contain sugar, and save the sugar intake for a true, high-quality treat every once in a while.

For those looking to cut back on sugar in packaged products,  I recommend the following items:

  • Salad dressing,  Cindy’s Kitchen Barcelona Vinaigrette is a great pre-made option.
  • Trader Joe’s Kettle Cooked Chicken Soup for a gluten-free, sugar free prepared soup
  • Chicken stock: Imagine Organic Free-Range chicken stock
  • Trader Joe’s Chile Lime Chicken Burgers (these are particularly good in a lettuce bun with guacamole)
  • Rao’s Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce

I picked up Year of No Sugar purposely after finishing the Whole 30 to help me stay motivated to keep sugar out long-term. What I found was that this book didn’t help that goal in any way, but I did discover that I alreadym have the motivation I need to keep on this path. Yay for self-empowerment!

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Hillbilly Elegy has certainly been making the rounds lately, with J.D. Vance appearing on numerous talk shows. His book has been marketed out the wazoo as something all liberal-minded individuals should read to provide insight into the mysterious “Trump voter”. This memoir has been talked up as one of the most informative books published in 2016 on the plight of working-class whites.

In reality, Hillbilly Elegy is just a memoir, and to be honest, not an incredibly remarkable one at that. And, in my case, one of those instances where a book definitely did not live up to the hype.

I will fully admit, about 1/3 of the way into the book, I started to realize I had completely misplaced expectations as to what I was reading. I was expecting something that was half memoir, and half social commentary and analysis. Hillbilly Elegy is not that. What it is, in my opinion, is 90% memoir, and 10% minor social commentary, that sometimes contradicts itself.

This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

J.D. Vance was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town not too far removed from the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Vance’s family spent summers visiting the rural Appalachian community in Kentucky where his grandparents were born and raised.

The subtitle claims that this is an elegy, and a memoir, for the Appalachian culture of his grandparents. Writing a family memoir is one thing, writing the “memoir” for an entire culture, based purely on your own experiences, I find highly presumptuous. J.D. Vance is doing a great disservice to the very people he is trying to help. His story is one of upward mobility, and to that end, it is a very enlightening read. But it is not an adequate “memoir” of an entire culture.

J.D. Vance escaped the life he was raised in, despite his addicted mother, a revolving door of fathers, and a community that was struggling with many of the same problems. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is a strong sense of ‘bootstrappery’ about his beliefs – pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps. That it is up to yourself, not the government, to make your life better.

While J.D. Vance may be making some mass generalizations (that seem to play to both the liberal and conservatives stereotypes of Appalachia), there is no denying that there is some truth to what he says. He brings up some interesting points, but I find that he is too quick to blame the poor for their own misfortunes.

Take this excerpt:

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.

In the next paragraph he does mention one barrier to full-time employment: the fact that in many areas, the only jobs available are part-time. But then he leaves that idea in the dust, and doesn’t come back to it again. He spends very little time on the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, and what it truly means to be isolated from the educated, American “mainstream”.

If Hillbilly Elegy was solely a story about upward mobility, a conversation about what it is like to be stuck in a community that can not seem to keep up with the present, this would have been a good book. When he starts to ruminate about poverty in all of Appalachia, and simplify it to a message that is predominantly – “do better, work harder” he lost me as a fan. He is definitely not mean-spirited, possibly more of the “tough love” approach (which may explain Amy Chua’s endorsement on the back of the cover, author of  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!). Ultimately, I felt that he was pigeon-holing an entire community into categories of dysfunction and laziness. Something that should sound awfully familiar to African-Americans, who have been subjected to many of the same stereotypes.

Which brings me to one final point about something missing from this book. Vance seems to be writing for Appalachia as a whole, but at no time does he ever bring up the issue of race. Appalachia is often painted as poor, rural, and white. Once again, the Appalachian’s who are PoC are erased from existence. The fact is, Appalachia does not have one story, one voice, and it does a disservice to the region every time that it is painted in such a way.

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I added White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg to my TBR list. I hope it will provide more of the in-depth analysis that I am looking for right now.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.

Book Review – El Deafo by Cece Bell

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Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Illustrator: Cece Bell
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Genre: Graphic Novels, Memoir, Middle grade, Own Voices

There are a lot of absolutely wonderful middle-grade graphic novels out there, and El Deafo is no exception. This one is stellar.

First, let me be completely honest. I never read comic books or graphic novels as a kid. Up until a few years ago, I had never even picked one up.

However, I married a guy who loves graphic novels. Slowly, but surely, because I will read almost anything if it sits in front of me long enough, I gave them a try, starting with V is for Vendetta. And then the Sandman series.

So, when my daughter first started expressing an interest in graphic novels a year or so ago, I began to pick up the middle-grade ones. And that is how I came to read El Deafo, after seeing it on a library reading list. I studied Sign Language during undergrad, and visited Gallaudet University, one of the only university’s in the world designed to be barrier-free for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. One thing that I learned is that there are lots of different ways to be deaf. In the author’s note at the end of El Deafo, Cece writes about the differences in deafness, and about Deaf Culture, where sign language is the main way to communicate and deafness is seen as something that shouldn’t be attempted to be “fixed” with cochlear implants and other devices.

Cece Bell makes it quite clear in her Author’s Note that her experience as portrayed in her book is her experience alone, and shouldn’t be viewed as “right or wrong” from anyone else’s experience or perspective. I actually loved her Author’s Note almost as much as the whole story, and it is definitely not something you should skip over at the end when reading El Deafo.

In this semi-autobiographical graphic novel, we are introduced to the story of a young rabbit named Cece who  loses her hearing after a serious illness at a young age. It is the story of a girl – rabbit – growing up with a serious hearing impairment: how she felt, and how she handled the insecurities she felt when people treated her differently.

I loved how so much of the story is a humourous take on her personal journey through early childhood – particularly the elementary school years. First, she attends a school for deaf children, which is where she learns to lipread. However, her family soon moves to a new town and she has to leave the school that she loves. At her new school, Cece uses what is called a Phonic Ear, a bulky device that helps her hear the teacher. Cece creates a superhero alter-ego, El Deafo, to help cope with the trials that come along with adjusting to a new school and trying to make new friends while also getting used to the Phonic Ear. We get to see Cece’s innermost thoughts and daydreams as she interacts with her family, friends, and teachers. The illustrations are thoroughly appealing and incredibly cute, I really love that Cece choose rabbits instead of people for this book.

In El Deafo, we get to spend six years with Cece Bell. I wish it was more! Cece the rabbit is resilient, heart-warming, and incredibly funny. El Deafo, which is both written and illustrated by Cece Bell, is a beautiful gift for children and adults alike.

To wrap up, here’s a short review from my 9-year old M, and her thoughts on El Deafo:

I really liked the book because I like to read about people who are different from me. It helps me understand more about how others view the world. And I loved the drawings! Cece Bell is a really good illustrator. I give it 5/5 stars.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review – Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Title: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Poetry, memoir, middle-grade, nonfiction, #ownvoices

I very rarely read books written in verse, but when I do, I am usually pleasantly surprised. Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in verse form. The whole middle-grade book is written in simple, free verse poems.

Simple, but astoundingly beautiful. Succinct is probably a more apt description than simple. At times, heartbreaking. And absolutely and without a doubt, there is more there than meets the eye.

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In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in 2014 for Brown Girl Dreaming. Her book was also a Newbery Honor Book, and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. She deserves all of the accolades, and more.

Brown Girl Dreaming is largely about Jacqueline’s childhood, from her early childhood years in the 1960s in Greenville, South Carolina through her family’s move to NYC and her elementary school years, when she first discovered her interest in writing. I loved hearing her stories from Greenville, when she lived with her mom, siblings, and grandparents. Her grandfather became a father-figure to her, and her love for her grandparents and their importance in her life is a big part of her story.

Don’t be fooled that this is just a memoir. Woodson delves into everything from the Civil Rights movement, to moving from Ohio, to the Jim Crow American South, to New York. From race to religion, she does not sugarcoat what it is like to grow up black in the 1960s and 70s, both in the South and the North.

This is a book for everyone. But most especially, Brown Girl Dreaming is a book for elementary and middle-school aged girls. Girls who may not have an easy time at home. Girls who are PoC. Girls who may not fit the typical academic mold. Girls who don’t think of themselves as great because they don’t fit the typical academic mold. For any and all of the above type of girls, this is a must-read.

Yes, you can speed through this book in one sitting, as fast as my husband’s family consumes our Thanksgiving dinner. But, the book is much better suited to the Slow Food movement: pace yourself, slowly and thoughtfully, as you read and digest her words.

Deep winter and the night air is cold. So still,

it feels like the world goes on forever in the darkness

until you look up and the earth stops

in a ceiling of stars. My head against

my grandfather’s arm,

a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing.

Its whine like a song.

You don’t need words

on a night like this. Just the warmth

of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise

that the world as we know it

will always be here.

 Rating: 5/5 stars