THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo

I feel like in the last few months, my house has reached a tipping point: I hate almost everything in it. There’s too much stuff and I can’t take the clutter anymore. I have made a pact: 50% of it needs to go. We don’t use it, we barely look at it, and I am so much happier when there is less of it.

I’ve undertaken a few efforts to get things under control. First, I sold a bunch of stuff at our local mother of multiples’ consignment sale. As my son gets older, I can cycle out the stuff we have kept from when my daughters were little. Booster seats, infant toys, snap-and-go stroller – all now making someone else’s baby happy. Second, I’ve cleaned out my own closets and gotten rid of probably 2/3 of my clothes. I weeded out stuff that didn’t fit, that didn’t look right, that was out of style. or that I just couldn’t figure out how to wear. Of course, I’ve replaced some of it, but there is less hanging in there and I can see it all now. And I’ve started a project to redo my daughters’ room. I haven’t started the cleanout in there yet, but it’s coming soon.

But there is so much more to do. (The books! My god, the books.)

So I was in the perfect frame of mind to read Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo is a professional organizer in Japan, and she has a whole system – the KonMari Method – to help clients declutter for good. She sees decluttering not as something you do regularly, but as a way of life that will transform how you use your space and treat your belongings.

Here are some of her guidelines:

  • Surround yourself with things that bring you joy. If you are keeping things for any other reason, get rid of them.
  • Don’t de-clutter a little bit at a time. Instead group all similar items together and go through all of them at once.
  • Focus in what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of.
  • Don’t store things in fancy containers. You’ll never see what you have. Cardboard shoeboxes make the best storage units.
  • The more paper you get rid of, the more efficient you’ll be, because you won’t spend time looking for what you need.
  • Store purses inside of other purses.
  • Don’t use belongings to keep you stuck in the past. Appreciate the memories and move on.

There’s a lot more to the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but those are the things that jump to mind as I think back on it. Pretty useful.

Kondo sometimes veers off into directions that didn’t resonate with me. I don’t think I need to thank my clothes at the end of the day for being lovely. I don’t believe in taking everything out of my purse when I get home from work, only to put it all back in the next day. I found her treatment of books to be totally unrealistic – she says to put them in a bookshelf in the closet and she expressed amazement at a client who had fifty books in her TBR pile. (Ha!)

I suspect that if you’re the type of person who would get something out of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’ve already decided that you want to read it. If you’re not the type of person who would get something out of it, you’ve stopped reading already.

Off to declutter the dining room table.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Our April mother-daughter book club pick was Running Out Of Time, by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In the book, a 13 year-old girl named Jessie lives with her family in an Indiana town in 1840. It’s a small town where she knows everyone, attends the school, and does everything a girl of her time would do. Except, it turns out, “her time” is actually 1996. Her parents moved to a historical village when she was a baby, and have raised her there, letting her believe it is over a century earlier than it really is. The town is observed every day by tourists behind one-way glass and secret cameras, letting visitors observe the goings-on without being noticed.

When diptheria starts spreading among the children of the town, Jessie’s mother finally confides in her and asks her to try escape to present-day and get medicine that will cure the children. The people who founded the town, Clifton, have refused to give the townspeople access to modern medicine, despite promises that they would when they recruited the people to come live there. They now have their own sinister plan to refuse medical care for the people living there in the name of science, and are forcibly keeping them there. Julie’s mother sees her as the final hope to get the medicine they need before children in the town start dying of a disease with an easy medical cure.

Julie learns the truth about her life on the same night she has to escape, so her mind is reeling when she dons her mother’s old jeans and sneakers and sets out to explore the real world. There are several twists along the way, but Julie is brave and resourceful and manages to tell the world about the truth behind the historical town: that people there are being forced to stay against their will, and that children are being denied life-saving medicine.

This was an unusual book pick for our book club, as we haven’t read many action/adventure books before. I wouldn’t say that it was the girls’ favorite book of the year, but I found it quite creative and suspenseful. It was fun to see the differences between 1840 and 1996 through the eyes of a young adult. We actually had one of our best discussions of the year, covering topics like a parent’s responsibility to her child, the ethics of medical experimentation, and whether the girls would rather live in the past or the present. The book also reminded quite a few of us of The Truman Show.

I enjoyed Running Out Of Time and was surprised that more girls didn’t like it as much as I did.

ALL THE HAPPINESS YOU DESERVE by Michael Piafsky

All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky tracks vignettes from one man’s life from boyhood to grandfatherhood through short chapters – some only as long as 2 pages – that cover a particular event or short period in his life.  The story jumps from the narrator’s painful childhood (his father is gruff and often mean, and his mother and sister disappear for 2 years before returning without an explanation), to his years in college in Boston, a move to Seattle, a career in finance in New York, a disgraceful exit to the midwest, a daughter, a failed marriage and retirement. Scotty’s is an ordinary, unglorious life, with a few peaks and a lot of valleys.

Piafsky’s writing is anything but ordinary, though. He is one gorgeous writer. It took me quite a while to get through All the Happiness You Deserve because I didn’t want to skim through anything in this book. It is full of small, intimate details that convey the narrator’s humanity and really make him known to the reader. He can be maddening, especially as he messes up his life over and over. But Piafsky’s writing is just such a pleasure. Interestingly, All The Happiness You Deserve is written in the second person, which I don’t always love, but it works here.

Did I mention that this is a debut novel?

I don’t think All The Happiness You Deserve got that much attention when it came out. That’s a shame. This unique, beautiful book deserves a wider audience. It’s not an uplifting read – in fact it can be downright sad – but it reminded me why I love reading, and why I am in awe of good writers.

Give it a try.

SMALL MERCIES by Eddie Joyce

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce is a family drama told from alternating perspectives about the Amendolas, a family from Staten Island. The book takes place over one pivotal week in the lives of Gail (the mother), Michael (the father), Peter (one son), Franky (another son), and Tina (the daughter-in-law), who was married to a third son, Bobby, who is now dead. Bobby was a firefighter who was killed in one of the towers on 9/11, and the book takes place ten years later.

When this debut novel opens, Gail is preparing for her grandson Bobby Jr.’s birthday party, which she is hosting at her house. Tina then breaks the news to her that she has been seeing someone, and that she’d like to bring him to the party. This stirs up a lot of emotions for Gail, who is still grieving the loss of her son and feels that Tina’s finding a new boyfriend is a betrayal of her son’s memory. Tina’s news is also the narrative excuse for Joyce to explore how the rest of the family is coping with losing Bobby. The narration goes back and forth between the present day and points in the past, so the reader gets a complete story of each character and how they got to where they were.

I liked Small Mercies quite a bit. I enjoyed the setting – Staten Island, a borough that has always been a bit of a mystery to me – and Joyce’s ability to bring it to  life through his characters. I thought Joyce did a great job getting into their heads and exposing their grief not only about losing Bobby, but for some, about how their lives turned out. They’re all flawed, and have done things they aren’t proud of, but Joyce at least explains why and provides each character’s perspective.

Joyce covers a lot of ground here: 9/11, of course, but also corporate law firms, high school sports, March Madness, the pressure to do what your father did, and the changes modern times have brought to a traditional Italian neighborhood across the river from Manhattan. Joyce is a clean, detailed writer and Small Mercies flowed easily. Despite its subject matter, it is not a heavy or difficult read at all.

I mostly listened to Small Mercies on audio, and the narration by Scott Aiello was excellent. His Staten Island accent was very good (at least I assume so), and he really brought the characters to life. I didn’t love his female voices as much as his male voices – they were a little exaggerated and ironically unfeminine – but I find this to be the case with many male narrators voicing women characters. Overall it was a very good audiobook that enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

If you like modern American family sagas told from multiple perspectives, then Small Mercies is probably right for you. I look forward to reading more from Eddie Joyce.

 

A TENDER STRUGGLE by Krista Bremer

A Tender Struggle: Story of A Marriage (previously published as An Accidental Jihad), by Krista Bremer, is about a non-spiritual Christian who meets Ismail, a Muslim Libyan man 15 years her senior while on a running path in North Carolina. Despite their vast cultural differences, she ends up marrying him and having two children with him. A Tender Struggle is a memoir about Bremer’s journey to understand him and his faith.

I have mixed feelings about this book.

On the plus side: Bremer is a beautiful writer. Her memoir is clear, eloquent and totally honest. I don’t think she held back at all in writing this book. She shares great detail about her visit to Libya to meet Ismail’s family and the isolation, boredom, and frustration she felt during that visit, when she couldn’t speak the language and was usually relegated to sitting silently with women she couldn’t understand. She is frustrated by her husband’s otherness – his need to bargain, even at the mall; his impatience with Christmas; his stubborn insistence on getting their son circumcised. But she’s also honest about her attraction and devotion to him, and the completeness with which she gives herself over to their relationship.

On the minus side: I found it strange how little Bremer tried to understand her husband’s faith until the end of the book (several years into their marriage). How could she have married him and had so little curiosity about why he believed what he did? How could they as a couple have communicated so little about how they were going to merge their lives and accommodate both of their traditions? I know that Bremer loved Ismail deeply, but I didn’t feel that I knew him well at the end of the book. (Did she?) All I really knew was that he was very different from her and made living the life she had expected to live close to impossible. On her trip to Libya: while her feelings were understandable, she made little effort to connect with her husband’s family, or to express to him her desire to be integrated.

Some people have criticized Bremer as whiny or self-centered. I didn’t find her whiny; I found her pretty relatable. I just found the book a little unrealistic in its depiction of the marriage. Perhaps it is the pacing or organization of the book, but how could it have taken so long for her to take an interest in Islam? When she finally did, it felt rushed and a little insincere. As a reader, I never really caught up with her.

I will say this: Bremer totally nailed the reason why I don’t like listening to NPR: “Ismail always listened to public radio in the car, and I usually objected to its litany of bad news, its droning analysis of the same intractable problems”. Yes, that.

So a mixed review from me on this one. I loved the writing but felt a little bereft at the end. I wanted to know more.

HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau is the story of Anna, an American expat married to a Swiss banker living outside of Zurich. She stays at home with her three children, living the bored, lonely life of a suburban housewife who – even worse – can’t speak the language of the country she’s living in. Anna is depressed, antisocial, and self-absorbed. Her husband, Bruno, is brusque and unemotional, and while they occasionally connect sexually, there is little emotional intimacy between them. Anna embarks on a series of reckless of affairs, most of which don’t bring her any satisfaction or fulfillment beyond the fleeting and physical. Hausfrau follows Anna for six months or so as she spirals downward, increasingly less able to control her impulses and further removed from her responsibilities to her family. Even after she resolves to recommit to her husband, she doesn’t untangle herself completely from her affairs and makes poor decisions with serious ramifications.

Anna is relentlessly passive, letting things happen to her and exerting almost no control over her reactions and participation. She enters into a friendship with a woman from her German class almost entirely unwillingly, letting herself be sucked in to the relationship with no enthusiasm. She knows that her mother-in-law, who takes care of her young daughter on her many afternoons away from home, is disapproving and resentful, but she never confronts her or apologizes. And she endures her husband’s bad moods and benign neglect without complaint or confrontation. She participates in most of her life with the barest of energy, with the exception of her affairs, which at least merit her physical presence.

Interspersed with Anna’s story are excerpts from her sessions with a psychoanalyst, who tries to help Anna understand herself better by questioning her motivations and frustrations (and basically answering all of Anna’s questions with her own).

People seem to have strong reactions one way or the other to Hausfrau. Either they love Essbaum’s poetic writing and exploration of morality, or they hate Anna and find the book too dark and sexually graphic. I fell mostly into the first camp. I liked the writing a lot, found the setting remote and interesting, and thought that Anna was interesting in a “I can’t look away” kind of way. She is maddening and not very likeable, to be sure, but there were some universal themes in the book that I enjoyed exploring. I did not like the psychoanalysis sections. I didn’t understand a lot of them, or found them boring, or both. But they do help to paint the picture of Anna’s despair and desire to get at the heart of something, even if she doesn’t know what it is. She also wasn’t totally honest with the therapist, so the utility of the sessions was necessarily limited.

I listened to Hausfrau mostly on audio. The narration by Mozhan Marno was excellent. She mastered many accents, especially Bruno’s and the therapist’s, and they all seemed totally authentic. I loved her Bruno – she just captured him perfectly. One challenge to the audio – the book jumps around a lot, both in time and in plot thread, so there’s a risk that the audio version would be challenging to a listener without paragraph cues. But I found it really easy to follow.

MILD SPOILER AHEAD

I’ve waited a week since finishing Hausfrau to write this post, trying to see how it would sit with me after some time off. I think I liked it more in the beginning than in the end. Ultimately, Anna’s situation was just too hopeless. I wanted some redemption, some change to make her life more bearable, but it never came. In fact, it just got worse. Essbaum’s writing is amazing, and there is a lot of compelling stuff in here, but it was too bleak even for me. (And that says a lot.)

(How gorgeous is that cover, though?)

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

It must be really fun to write dystopian fiction. You can create worlds that are limited only by your imagination and what the human body can realistically endure. I tend to read realistic fiction, but the few times I’ve ventured into dystopian territory, I have been impressed by the creativity and originality in those works. (The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker comes to mind.)

Station Eleven falls into this category. Emily St. John Mandel’s deeply moving novel takes place fifteen years after a pandemic, the Georgia Flu, has claimed over 99% of the world’s population. All of the technology that defined the modern age – electricity, transportation by car and plane, the Internet, computers, medicine, etc. – is gone. Geographic borders have become meaningless, as people now live in very small communities, often congregating in formerly public spaces like Walmarts, airports, and restaurants. Other than traveling by foot from place to place, there is no way of knowing who else – if anyone – is still around.

Station Eleven follows a few different characters, relating their pre- and post-flu lives. The pre-flu plot centers around Arthur, an aging actor performing King Lear in a Toronto theater just as the flu is racing through America. He dies of a heart attack while on the stage. Among those who are affected by his death are Jeevan, a paramedic who tries to revive him; Kristen, a child actress performing with him; Clark, his best friend; Miranda, his ex-wife; and Elizabeth, another ex-wife with whom he had a son, Tyler. Station Eleven jumps around among these characters’ lives, ultimately following where they were when the flu hit, how they managed to survive it (or not), and where they are now, fifteen years later. Ultimately, most of them cross paths again in the new world.

Kristen ends up in a traveling theater troupe who roams from town to town through what was once the Midwest, bringing a bit of beauty to the desolation in the form of Shakespeare and classical music. Mandel does not spend time talking about how the citizens of the new world survive day to day (how did they get water? what did they do all day? how did they get new clothes? how did they survive winters living in airports with no heat?). Instead, she focuses more on the psychological impact of the flu and its destruction of culture and connection. That’s why the troupe is so important; it’s a symbol of how desperate both the performers and the audience were for lovely, fragile humanity  which they had lost in a weekend. There is a pervasive feeling of dread and danger throughout the book too, thanks to the vigilante, wild West atmosphere that replaced our ordered, law-enforcing society.

I found Station Eleven to be a thought-provoking, moving book. It took me forever to read – like 4 weeks – because I just couldn’t process too much of it at one time. I absorbed it in small chunks because it kind of exhausted me. But I know people who read it in a weekend, so don’t let that deter you.

There is one incredibly powerful image that comes to mind whenever I think about Station Eleven. When the world had finally grasped the potency of the flu, people started quarantining buildings and shutting people out in an attempt to keep the flu away. Three hundred stranded passengers in a Michigan airport, surrounded by empty planes, watched a final plane land on the runway… and just sit there, silently. No one ever emerged from the sealed plane. Ever. Who decided that those people needed to stay on the plane to protect the uninfected? Who was on the plane? How swift were their deaths? That plane just haunted me.

Station Eleven isn’t a perfect book – there are a lot of loose ends and much that goes unexplained – but I think it was incredibly impressive nonetheless. It has made me look differently at how we live our modern lives and question what’s really important and what would survive if we all disappeared.