The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I have a friend who is all about the self-help books.  Of course, she also believes in reiki. I don’t know if she’s read Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project but I know she’d love it. I’m a skeptic (a hopeful skeptic) and I really liked this book. Perhaps I read it at the perfect time in my life – lots of changes and upheaval and uncertainty, but hope, too. In less capable hands, The Happiness Project might have been a different book. (a la Eat, Pray, Love, a book I didn’t love.) Instead, Gretchen Rubin’s musings on what happiness means and how to achieve it comes across as less how-to manual and more why happiness should be pursued and valued.

Rubin’s personal happiness project was inspired by that moment (which will likely come to us all) when she realized she was “in danger of wasting [her] life.” Okay, truthfully, who hasn’t thought that a time or two? Of course, she knew all the ways her life was pretty damn perfect: great husband, wonderful kids, work she loved, terrific extended family, lived in NYC etc etc…Still.

What I liked the most about Rubin’s happiness journey was that she understood and even poked fun at her personal shortcomings: her need for praise and her short fuse. I also liked that her quest for happiness wasn’t all abstract and metaphysical. She understood the sinple joy of getting rid of junk and splurging once and a while on something you really needed or wanted.  Rubin herself seems incredibly down-to-earth…someone you’d like to sit and have a cup of tea with (I’d say a glass of wine, but she’s mostly given that up!)

 Threaded through the entire book was this notion that “the days are long, but the years are short.” It’s true, isn’t it? When she and her husband take a moment to watch their sleeping children, it is a moment of sheer happiness – if only because that moment will never come again.

 Happiness spreads. I know this is true. I know the power of a smile because I use it every day in the classroom….even when I don’t feel like smiling, it’s amazing how smiling at a surly kid makes them smile, too. I want to be happier. I deserve to be. And so I owe it to myself to make that happen.

If you’re looking for inspiration, for a way to make your life happier, The Happiness Project is a great place to start. You can visit Rubin’s website, The Happiness Project, for lots more info.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, seems every bit as relevant now, some 105 years after it was first published. The novel follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Miss Lily Bart, a stunningly beautiful woman about town. The town in question: New York City.  Despite her attractiveness, Lily is without a husband and without a fortune. In order to maintain her lifestyle – which up until now has depended on the kindness of her rich friends – Lily must marry…soon and to her financial advantage.

Wharton’s novel trails after Lily and her consorts, following them to the Hamptons and Monte Carlo, in and out of fabulous homes where words are carefully chosen and one small misstep can cost someone their standing in society. This is a novel about class and entitlement. Lily has nothing but her beauty and although it is clear from the beginning that she is in love with someone else, and he her, marrying is out of the question.

Lily is a wonderful creation and Wharton’s novel is filled with the minutia of the time. My copy even had footnotes to help me navigate some of the more unfamiliar terms of the day. For that reason, the novel certainly isn’t a quick read. The prose is dense and often seems artificial; surely people didn’t speak this way?

As a heroine, Lily might be hard to sympathize with. Modern women might find her quest to marry for money reprehensible. She uses her looks to her advantage, spends money she doesn’t have and seems impossible naive for someone who is pushing 30. But then, really, I know lots of women who play the very same games nowadays, always looking for an advantage and willing to climb the ladder (social or otherwise) by any means necessary.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wharton’s novel and am glad it was chosen as one of our ‘classic’ reads for this year’s book club.

My copy of the novel is one of Penguin’s Product Reds, an imprint where 50% of the profits from sales go towards  the Global Fund to help eliminate Aids in Africa. About bloody time, don’t you think?

A new year begins…

I have been a horrible blogger in the last few months. Worse, I have been a horrible reader. I didn’t quite make my 50 Book challenge, either – topping out at 46. What I did manage to do – effortlessly – was add to my already heaving tbr pile. I mean, really, did I actually need  anymore books? I have over 300 books now, waiting to be read.

One extremely exciting thing happened to me in December. I decided to paint my living room and my brother built me beautiful bookshelves to house my already-read books. When the project was over (after a few weeks of chaos and dust because of the painting/building) I sat in a chair admiring these shelves and even announced to my 11 year-old son, that I thought I might actually love the shelves more than I loved him. *g*

The books I didn’t get around to reviewing at the end of 2010

I totally picked up Jenesi Ash’s erotic novel Swap  on a whim. Plus, it was in the bargain bin. Therefore, I am not going to give myself too much grief for wasting the money…and it was a waste of money.

Jamie and Mia are best friends who live in a really small town with a stupid name. Jamie is bisexual, but Mia doesn’t know – so they’re apparently not best best friends. Oh, but wait, Mia is having trouble with her smokin’ red hot boyfriend, Aiden, so Jamie suggests a weekend of swapping. Luckily, Jamie’s boyfriend, Caleb (equally smokin’ hot) is all for it – he even knows Jamie wants to make it with Mia.

What follows is a bunch of reasonably well-written sex scenes, strung together with what passes off as insight into what motivates these characters to swap bodily fluids. It’s smut, people.

Sixteen year old, Tessa, is dying.  She’s been sick with leukemia since she was 12, but there’s nothing more they can do for her. When Jenny Downham’s moving novel Before I Die  opens, Tessa has decided to make a list of all the things she wants to do before she leaves the earth. Right off the top, she wants to have sex.

Tessa is a believable character, sullen and bitchy one minute and hopeful and loving the next. She lives with her dad and younger brother, Cal. Her mother left the family to follow another man to Scotland. The relationship didn’t work out and she’s in the neighbourhood, but Tessa’s care is really left to her father, who has given up work to stay homelook after Tessa.

Before I Die is a book about living the best way you can with the time you have. There’s a lesson in there for all of us. When Tessa meets Adam, the boy next door, her world starts to expand. When her best friend, Zoey, finds herself pregnant, Tessa has something to look forward to. Ultimately, though, this is a novel about dying and the last twenty pages or so are amoung the most moving I have ever read.

Intrator, a professor at Smith College, spends a whole year observing high school teacher, Mr. Quinn, in his classroom in a high school on the West Coast. His observations about the classroom are captured in his book, Tuned In and Fired Up. Obviously, this isn’t the sort of book that will interest the casual reader, but as a high school English teacher, I found it illuminating, inspiring and practical.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s meditation on “youth and age; love and marriage; peace, solitude and contentment” is slightly old-fashioned. It was, after all, published 50 years ago.  Lindbergh spends time at the beach, reflecting on her life, and writing in a journal – perhaps never having intended to share her thoughts with the world. Still, she invites the reader to consider how to attain balance in ones own life and that is certainly a modern question.

Not quite as frothy as you might think, Tess Stimson’s novel The Adultery Club tells the story of a  happily married couple, Nicholas and Mal, whose lives and marriage are torn apart when Nicholas decides to have an affair. The novel is told from various points of view and was certainly an entertaining read.

Twenty-three year old Carrie Bell has spent her whole life in the same small Wisconsin town. She’s engaged to her high school sweetheart, Mike, and it seems like her future is set. Except she’s not happy. She wants more.  The  Dive from Clausen’s Pier is a great book, well-written, thoughtful and would make an excellent choice for book clubs.

Ron is a creepy vacuum repair man who falls in love with nine-year-old Rachel. He builds her a fairy tale bedroom in the basement of his shop and then, one hot summer night, he kidnaps her. Helpless is a riveting novel from start to finish. And it isn’t compelling just because of the situation, Ron is one of the most complex characters I’ve read in recent memory and Gowdy is a masterful story teller.