Monthly Archives: May 2016

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before Rubin

2015. Broadway Books. Paperback. 304 pages.

Recommendation from: books, the universe, and everything


A little over a year ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I loved it. It helped me attain a few goals and some of the principles from that book still stick with me. In Better Than Before, Rubin focuses on the mechanics of making and keeping good habits as well as breaking bad habits. Habits are powerful forces that we can harness for good:  “how we schedule our days is how we spend our lives.”

As with The Happiness Project, Rubin emphasizes self-knowledge. For the most part, she is not interested in proscribing particular habits to form or break, but is instead explaining methods for accomplishing these goals. And both the habit and the method you choose depends on who you are.

In the beginning, she discusses her theory about the four tendencies people tend to fall into: the Upholders who respond well to inner and outer expectations; the Questioners who respond to expectations only if it makes sense to them, and so do better with inner expecations; the Obligers who find it easier to meet external expectations rather than inner expectations; and Rebels who resist too much expectations of any kind. According to the questionnaire on Rubin’s website, I’m an Obliger, which I felt was sort of true, but not entirely. I am wary of such tidy categorizations, and the concept never really resonated with me like other parts of her book do. (Also, it seemed like most of the book’s strategies wouldn’t work for Rebels, which makes me wonder what would work for Rebels. But being Rebels, maybe they wouldn’t be the type to pick up the book anyway?)

I finished the book a week ago, and the phrases that continue to run through my head are “tomorrow logic” and “we manage what we monitor.” When I picked up this book, I knew exactly what habit I wanted to form. I wanted to be in bed by a certain time on weeknights. I had been fighting against “tomorrow logic” every night, coming up with illogical reasons for staying up later than intended. But a good habit must begin now, not tomorrow. So far, I’ve been keeping to my new bedtime on weeknights. However, this habit is only a week old, and still very vulnerable. That’s where the strategy of monitoring comes in.

Rubin talked about monitoring in The Happiness Project but I didn’t do much to try and incorporate that into my life. This time I was more proactive and I printed out copies of the Daily Time Log from her website, and I have been using them.

One of my favorite chapters was the one about identity, where Rubin discusses how our views of ourselves influence our actions. For example, I’ve long thought of myself as a “night owl” and I think this made my attempts to go to bed earlier harder. I’d be up late, maybe reading something online, justifying it by thinking, well that’s how I am – my brain is just active at night. When instead, I was actually in a wired/tired state (an apt description I’m borrowing from the book). Reading this book made me rethink this “night owl” identification. I thought of the times where I got up early on a Saturday morning and was productive and how good it felt. Maybe there’s a morning person in there somewhere, or at least more of a morning person than I thought. I’m not sure what this new identity is – maybe simply “I’m a person who values sleep”.

I think bad days at work will be the greatest threat to my new bedtime habit. Rubin discusses various tempting loopholes like the Moral Licensing loophole where we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” because we deserve it, or that “this doesn’t count”. I have in the past sacrificed a good night’s sleep because I wanted my free time after work to be longer, to “salvage” the day. I’ll have to come up with ways to soothe a bad day that don’t involve staying up late.

As with Rubin’s The Happiness Project, Better than Before has injected some new vigor into my efforts to make changes that would better my life. She does a great job in articulating the ways we sabotage ourselves, and then also the ways to overcome common obstacles. I appreciate the care that she takes to acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all and what works for one person make not work for another. I took a number of notes, and could see myself referring back to some of the chapters as I consider other habits to form / break.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review. (The program allows you to choose a book from a selection of books, so I chose a book I thought would be a good fit for me.)


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Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Excellent Women Pym

1952. Penguin. Paperback. 256 pages.

Recommendation from: Aarti

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is about a woman named Mildred Lathbury living in post-war London. Mildred is just over thirty, has never been married, works in charity, and is quite involved in her church. When a dashing, tempestuous couple move into the flat below hers, Mildred is drawn into their affairs (at their invitation).

The title of the book refers to the category of women that Mildred has been placed in. These “excellent women” are unmarried, and are expected to and condescendingly admired for performing domestic tasks for the church, for society, and for apparently hapless bachelors and neighbors. This might take the form of organizing a jumble sale, or mending curtains. Many times for Mildred, it takes the form of being dependable company for people who want to confide or who are bored.

I loved how well Pym captured the internal thoughts of Mildred. Mildred is wonderfully observant and self-aware, as seen in passages like this one (Dora and she used to be roommates):

As I moved about the kitchen getting out china and cutlery, I thought, not for the first time, how pleasant it was to be living alone. The jingle of the little beaded cover against the milk jug reminded me of Dora and her giggles, her dogmatic opinions and the way she took offence so easily. The little cover, which had been her idea, seemed to symbolize all the little irritations of her company, dear kind friend though she was. ‘It keeps out flies and dust,’ she would say, and of course she was perfectly right, it was only my perverseness that made me sometimes want to fling it away with a grand gesture.

Pym’s book is not championing “spinsterhood” or denigrating it – in Excellent Women, all the characters are kind of ridiculous in recognizably human ways, whether they are married or not. And Mildred herself vacillates between contentment with her life as it is and desire for something different, for something more romantic but not necessarily romance itself, if that makes sense.

I found it completely refreshing to read about an unmarried woman over thirty with no real romantic history and no romantic storyline in the book either [1]. That’s my life, but it’s rarely the sort of life that gets the spotlight in stories. And while I read and enjoy romantic stories, they do hold a narrative tyranny that can become tiresome. I know so many women like me in real life but am hard pressed to find fictional protagonists like us. Being long-term single is not a homogeneous state of being or a more empty one – there are so many different life stories among my single friends and family members. Who is our Mildred Lathbury of the 21st century? Where can I find her story? (Hit me up with recommendations if you have a candidate or any other good non-romantic stories of never married women.)

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Aarti of Booklust – “I think it cut so close to home in some ways, and was so deeply emotional in ways I did not expect, that I was taken aback.  It was also such a wonderful, telling snapshot of London after the war on so many levels.”

Girl with Her Head in a Book – ” It’s a little bit Stella Gibbons-esque in the social satire, but it’s Mildred’s brisk attitude to all social situations that carries the novel.”

Hilary at Vulpes Libres – “Capable, staunch Mildred behaves like and is believed by all to be a detached observer of all this but she isn’t – by subtle means in the narrative we find out how deeply she too is involved, and where her inner desires (ruthlessly suppressed) might be taking her. It is all so delicately done, and all of a piece with her character as an ‘Excellent Woman’. ”

[1] I’m aware that a later Pym book alludes to Mildred’s marriage to another character from the novel, but I still contend that there is no romantic storyline for Mildred in Excellent Women.


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I think the common denominator for the books to be reviewed in this post is that most of them were quick reads. Otherwise, they run the gamut of settings and genre.

Laura Bickle’s apocalyptic duology, The Hallowed Ones and The Outside, are set in an Amish village. The main character, Katie, is on the verge of a much-anticipated Rumspringa, when the world’s population starts turning into vampiric zombies. Her Amish community is a tenuous hold-out. Katie’s worldview is tossed upside-down and she finds herself at cross-purposes with most of the elders in her desire to understand the threat and help others. In particular, she wants to help two non-Amish people who have taken refuge in the community.

These two books might possibly be the books I’ve read the fastest this year. I found them incredibly suspenseful. I’m sure there’s stuff to nitpick, but I found myself willing to go along with the majority of Bickle’s worldbuilding. I really appreciated the fact that these books engaged with religion and faith in an interesting way. Unless a book is explicitly Christian fiction, it seems rare to find fiction – especially genre fiction – where main characters are people of faith.  I think some readers took issue with the way Katie’s worldview changed – she held to some principles but gave up on others, but it seemed very human to me. [Recommendation from Reading Rambo].

Vying for the spot of this year’s fastest read is Zen Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Effortlessly light and funny, this story is told as a series of journal entries by a young, independent Malaysian-Chinese woman living in 1920’s London. She is invited into a Bloomsbury literary circle after writing a scathing review of an author’s book and is soon pursued by that same author. Things get complicated from there. Jade’s narration of her own life is delightful.

Soon after that, I also read Zen Cho’s fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown. Online summaries remind me this novel is set in Britain’s Regency Era (the best my memory could come up with was “olden time England that is not Victorian but close”). Zacharias Wythe has recently become Britain’s Royal Sorcerer, after the death of his adoptive father, who was the previous Sorcerer. His ascent to this position is not well received by the rest of the magicians, mostly due to the fact that Zacharias is black and a former slave. As the politics get more dangerous, he makes a stop at a school outside London where young women are taught to restrain their magical abilities. It is there that he meets Prunella Gentleman, a young woman with extraordinary magical powers and a magical inheritance from her Indian mother. She finagles a ride back to London in an effort to better her station. Assassination attempts, supernatural visits, secret societies, and magical demonstrations ensue.

I can’t recall all the details of the complex plot – and it was complex. I remember that some parts were a little slow, and that it got a rather silly and confusing for my tastes at the climactic scene. Overall, though, I enjoyed it and what Zen Cho was doing through her story. I especially appreciated the inclusion of Zacharias’ mixed feelings toward his adoptive white father, who gave Zacharias freedom but also took Zacharias away from his living enslaved mother. For all that the book had its funny touches, it doesn’t shy away from sticky moral questions.

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra is set in 19th century Tasmania. When a terrible boat accident leaves six-year-old Hannah and her friend Becky stranded and alone in the wilderness, they are adopted by a pair of Tasmanian tigers. Hannah quickly takes to animal behavior to survive, while Becky is more reluctant to surrender to it. The story is told as the reminisces of an elderly Hannah. It’s an odd read. I liked the unusual setting and certain moments were evocative. However, I kept feeling like the story should have been more interesting to read than it was. I don’t know if it was the writing, or the straight-forward tragedy of it all that left me a little disappointed. That cover is amazing though. [Recommendation from Farm Lane Books].

Another underwhelming read for me was Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a collection of short stories by Z Z Packer. This was a book club read. Leslie was also underwhelmed but Teresa really liked it. As Teresa says in her review, these are dark stories. In these stories, the characters are often in a new place, usually hoping it will be better than where they left, but ultimately finding they cannot seem to belong anywhere. It’s pretty bleak, and that may explain some of my disengagement. It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons why, but with the exception of a couple of stories, I wasn’t really drawn in. The two stories I did like were the first one, “Brownies”, and also “The Ant of the Self.”

In the meantime, I can’t explain exactly why I enjoyed Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. I know there was a plot in there, but the book is mostly wall-to-wall descriptions of extremely wealthy people’s possessions and lifestyles. The clothes, the houses, the snobbery are all sumptuously detailed. And the descriptions of the food are enough to make you want to travel to Singapore just to eat. It’s a reading-as-gawking sort of experience and surprisingly a lot of fun.


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Three Excellent Novels about Bullying

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (2013)

The Goats by Brock Cole (1987)

I didn’t realize that I had a thematic link among my recent reads until I was placing a hold on The Goats a couple of weeks ago. Wonder was lent to me in February after several people in my church supper club had praised it. Not long after that, Yaqui Delgado caught my eye while I was browsing my county library’s ebook offerings. The Goats was recommended to my children’s literature class over a decade ago by a professor – and I finally read it last week. All three books involve bullying in some form, and also feature great writing and fantastic characters.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is the most popular of the three books, with nearly 260,000 ratings on Goodreads. The main character, August “Auggie” Pullman, suffers from a severe facial deformity and is about to enter school for the first time. Despite the adults’ efforts to encourage his new classmates to be a friend to Auggie, he quickly becomes a social outcast among the other sixth graders. Palacio’s novel is told from multiple perspectives – Auggie, a couple of his classmates, Auggie’s sister, her boyfriend, and a few others. Through the switches in perspective, you come to see that everyone is on their own journey, with their own struggles, even as they are aware of Auggie’s particular hardships. It’s a lovable group of characters, and it’s a story that pulls on the heartstrings without seeming manipulative. I definitely got teary sometimes reading it – but don’t worry, it’s more poignant than sad.

Meg Medina’s book Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass was a rougher read, emotionally. Piddy Sanchez’ mother decides to move them out of their dilapidated apartment to a better one in another neighborhood. Unfortunately, this places Piddy into a new high school, and soon in the cross-hairs of that school’s most intimidating bully, Yaqui Delgado. Medina convincingly portrays how bullying plunges Piddy into a claustrophobic bubble of misery. The climactic confrontation with Yaqui Delgado is terrifying in its level of humiliation – but is fortunately not the end of Piddy’s story. Piddy does find a way out that is a realistic salvation.

I can’t say enough about Medina’s characterization in this novel, and how well she writes about all the different facets of Piddy’s life. Bullying may inform the main storyline, but it’s not the only thing going on in Piddy’s world. There’s a best friend who has moved away, but is not out of the picture entirely. There’s Piddy’s former neighbor, a boy who is of romantic interest, but mostly they bond over wanting to escape from their current lives. And there is the fabulous Lila, best friend to Piddy’s mother, who fulfills a much needed role as adult confidante to Piddy. I would read more about Piddy, her family and friends. They just really came alive through this novel.

As much as I loved the previous two books, Brock Cole’s The Goats may end up being my favorite of them all. The worst happens right away: following a long-held but not condoned camp tradition, two outcast twelve-year-old campers – one girl and one boy – are stripped of their clothes and left on an island in the middle of a lake. They soon decide that they have no wish to go back to that camp and they successfully escape from their situation. Knowing that the girl’s mother will arrive at the camp in a few days’ time (and not thinking through that she will be alerted to her daughter’s disappearance), the kids must figure out how to get by on their own.

Strangers at first, the boy and the girl eventually become inseparable friends, helping each other maneuver out of the tight spots they find themselves in. In order to get food and shelter, they reluctantly commit some petty theft – but, adorably, they keep a little notebook of their debts which they plan to repay once restored to their families.

For all that the children are rarely called by their names in the book, there’s a wonderful specificity to them and to the story. The girl comes from a single-parent home, and a parallel storyline follows the mother as she pieces together what’s happened and who comprehends more than her daughter gives her credit for. The boy’s parents are archaeologists and I liked how his memories of traveling in Turkey and Greece work into the narrative.  I also identified with the boy’s picture of the forest as a representation of freedom. Trees make me feel that way too.

Wonder‘s depiction of bullying is probably the closest to my own childhood experience – kids making fun of me in cryptic ways I didn’t fully understand, being deliberately left out. However, Medina’s book so completely nailed the visceral pain of humiliation that it conjured some memories I hadn’t thought of in a while. The Goats rounds out this trifecta because it is about the moments of victory; it is about refusing to let the bullies have the final say and instead reveling in nature, new friends, and feeling the power of one’s own resourcefulness.


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