Nonfiction

I’m still reading about how French women do it better

Despite coming across the astute reporting in this 2017 Racked piece with the great title How to Sell a Billion Dollar Myth Like a French Girl, I’m still reading about how French women do it better.

I realize that no woman is perfect, but somehow, as I told Ben last week, the idea that there is a whole class of women out there who eat what they like and don’t get fat, enjoy wine, always look elegant, and wear only matching lingerie somehow gives me hope for myself.

FrenchThe first book I finished last week was All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women by Helena Frith Powell. This book was great for prying open the myth of the perfect French woman. Frith Powell interviews a dozen or so French women, most known for their contributions to the world of fashion, business, or politics, and runs through their opinions and tips on a slew of style-related topics, from workouts to botox.

The women Frith Powell describes are mostly “pencil thin” and always “well turned out.” Normally, reading things like this would be an opportunity for me to give myself a hard time for my distinct lack of elegance, penchant for junk food, and myriad other sins. But to be completely honest, I felt inspired. It seems like Frith Powell was too. Her writing about these women is part tribute, part exposé with a tone along the lines of “You can’t be the perfect woman all the time…but tell me your secrets just in case!”

And, of course, the book raised my feminist hackles. Are these women really wearing matching lingerie for themselves? Are they really staying stick thin for themselves? Or is this just the patriarchy (apparently alive and well in France) doing some of its best work? Frith Powell gives the impression that it’s some of column A and some of column B.

ParisInLoveAnother woman worshiping with me at the altar of French style is academic and romance writer Eloisa James. I listened to the audiobook version of her memoir Paris in Love last week.

After her breast cancer went into remission, James and her husband, also a professor and originally from Italy, take a teaching sabbatical and move with their two kids to Paris.

James warns us that the memoir began as a series of Facebook posts on her personal account, which she used to keep her family up to date on their lives in Paris. But her observations are so interesting and humorous that they ended up forming a memoir. James is an adept writer with a knack for imagery and creating a narrative in both the short, post-style entries and the longer, more essay-like parts. I found I liked them both but wished some of the short pieces delved deeper into the topics at hand.

Instead, the memoir is a simple but enjoyable reflection on the Parisian lifestyle and her family’s forays into and foibles within it. James covers the usual ground: French parenting, style, weight loss, food, smoking, and romance, among the chief explorations. But she also talks about her children, whom she admits provide most of the humor in the story, as they navigate the local Italian (her son) and French (her daughter) schools at different levels.

All in all, two good reads in which to indulge my obsession and I’ll be looking at reading books by both authors in the future.

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Nonfiction, What Ben Read

Tristan Gooley is a Goddamn Treasure

GooleyOne of the classic human trade-offs is gaining technology and forgetting a corresponding skill. We get a cell phone with a built in address book and quickly stop remembering phone numbers. A society develops written language and gives up its oral traditions. GPS gives turn by turn directions and people stop reading maps. Maps themselves are technology, supplanting a more elemental knowledge of how to find our way in the world.

When technology begins to replace skill, the gains are often obvious while the losses, slower and less evident, are only mourned after the fact when it is “too late” to do anything about them. And that’s where our man Gooley comes in. He knows how to navigate in the oldest of old-fashioned ways, using nothing but keen observation with all of his senses. He also has the insight and education to start communicating to us what we have been missing.

Gooley deftly bridges the gap between us and an old skill. He knows exactly what we’ve lost, and he makes a strong case as to why it matters. He speaks the language of the 21st century and seems almost completely at home within it. No wild-eyed prophet crying out in the wilderness here. Just a friendly, erudite voice saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to get out and learn some nifty tricks and secrets about nature and the world around you?”

I just finished “How to Read Nature,” having previously read “The Natural Navigator” and “The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.**” As you can see by the titles, there is some overlap of themes and material. But at least so far he’s managed to both stick to his broader themes and keep each book fresh and engaging.

If you are considering checking one of them out, “How to Read Nature” is actually a great place to start. It’s brief and compact, with a nice balance of the philosophical and the practical. There were a couple parts where one of his wisecracks didn’t quite land as intended (he’s generally pretty funny) or the flow of the book wasn’t perfectly polished, but these minor quibbles were easy to gloss over.

Gooley really shines when it comes to making his topic approachable. He recommends picking any aspect of nature that one finds interesting and using that as a means to greater understanding of the larger world. Flowers, birds, trees, stars, insects, rocks…it really doesn’t matter. It’s all connected at some level. So start with something that piques your interest and see where it takes you. Gooley peppers the book with brief exercises designed to get the reader started on the path to keener observation.

Meanwhile his obvious enthusiasm shines through on every page as he makes a strong case that we could all enhance our lives by becoming more aware of the natural world around us. I live in the city and grew up in cities. My life is unlikely to ever depend on my ability to locate true north by observing the stars. But having that knowledge gives an extra sense of being grounded in the world and a surprising amount of satisfaction.

4.5/5 trees. Definitely recommend.

** Some of the titles are different for the U.K. editions. If you’re in the U.S., read the U.S. versions. He notes that he has changed some of the specific examples in order to provide more relevant information for North American readers.

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter

30231738I know it’s early goings yet, but this book is a definite contender for my favorite book of the year (it wasn’t published this year, but I read it this year).

Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill is a collection of essays and memories written and published by the author/retired editor in her 90s.

If you haven’t read anything by Athill, I highly recommend you do so. She’s a distinct personality and that comes through in her writing, which, I know it’s cliche to say, is both poignant and humorous and most of the time humorously poignant.

Each chapter covers a specific memory or topic. Or memories as the vehicle for addressing big topics that include but are not limited to Athill’s miscarriage, aging, her childhood in Norfolk, fashion, WWII, colonialism in the Caribbean, her various love affairs, and her preference for being the “other woman.”

She writes it all in matter-of-fact prose with acknowledgement of her own “prosaic” tendencies. And yet, she does cover beauty, writing a passage on “looking” that, I’ll admit, gave me permission to enjoy a pastime I couldn’t have put a name to, which is looking, observing, really seeing something that interests you.

“Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. And giving me this book, of memories, thoughts and reflections, which does – roughly – add up to being a report on what living for ninety-seven years has taught one rather lucky old woman.”

SargentPortrait

 A pic I took on my phone to remember the moment

Personally, I think of wandering the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I went for the first time last summer. I was in a state of bliss, content to stand in front of the Sargent portraits til my eyeballs fell out. Now I know that looking is a thing, I’m going to spend more time doing it.

I also found out that I am not alone in how I have grown to perceive poetry and its place in my reading life over time.

“However, when someone asks me for my favourite poem and I answer Lear’s ‘ The Owl and the Pussy Cat ’, I am not being facetious. I really do prefer poems which tell a story to those that plumb the depths of experience, and those that depend largely on associations hooked up into a poet’s mind by words and images are lost to me. I read to see something, not to decipher codes.”

This was so validating for me. I got the impression that living life in your 90s is very freeing in the sense that you don’t worry about what people think of you (which Athill confirms for herself in the last chapter of the book). Wouldn’t it be great if I could give myself permission to live like that now?

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What Shannon Read, Nonfiction

How to Read a Dress: AKA, I love a book with pictures!

HowToReadADressJust wrapped up How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards. It was such a treat. If you have any interest in women’s fashion or historic dress, this is a fun book to add to your collection.

And if you’re a novice in this area like I am, it’s a great primer. I now feel like I know which parts of a historic dress to notice, from bodice to skirt, sleeves, and trim.

The book is organized into chapters spanning specific periods from 1550-1600 to 1960-1970. Each spread introduces the dresses being featured and gives some historical background along with a short overview of the specific trends the dresses exemplify. We also get some commentary on who might’ve worn such a dress and what for—day, evening, wedding, etc.

Dress1

Just looking at the fabrics is treat enough for me. I mean those stripes are 1

And here’s the dress from the intro to the 1710-1790 section. Can you imaging wearing something like that?

Dress2

One thing I really like about this book is the fun graphics. Each section begins with a page of silhouettes featured in the following pages.

My own pic – excuse the bad lighting:

Silhouettes

The whole book is just so put together. I think I’m going to buy a copy just to have it as a resource. Also, if you’re interested in fashion history, Lydia Edwards’ Instagram account is a fun one to follow. She features a lot of dresses that aren’t in the book.

How fun is it to read a book with pictures?

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Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence

34964841I like talking to people, but I unfortunately possess the unsociable qualities of both shyness and introversion. The two don’t always go together, but if you have them both, they do tend to feed on one another.

That means it takes A LOT of energy for me to engage, no matter how enjoyable I usually find it. After a social interaction, I’m always glad to have connected with other people. It just takes a lot of chutzpah on my part to get out there.

That’s why I was attracted to Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence by Amy Alkon. At first, I ignored this book because I’m getting kind of impatient with the whole using-a-swear-word-in-a-title trend. Not because I’m against swearing, but because I just think this concept is a bit overused and at least some of the time, it seems like a ploy to get millenials to buy books.

All that aside, Unf*ckology is billed as a “science-help” book, which appealed to me. And I ended up enjoying it. Here are a few things I learned:

“Fake it ’til you make it,” a strategy that has pretty much gotten me through life thus far, is a methodology backed by science. (Validation!!) Impersonating a confident person you admire, paired with practicing body language that conveys confidence (walking tall with your head up, for example), is an especially potent combo. These behaviors can actually convince your brain that you are, in fact, confident.

That idea stems from the theory of “embodied cognition,” which posits that the way we think is influenced by other systems in the body than just the brain. From wikipedia: “the features of cognition include high level mental constructs (such as concepts and categories) and performance on various cognitive tasks (such as reasoning or judgment). The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.”

And, as Alkon puts in from a self-esteem perspective: “By consistently changing how you behave (down to how you move, breathe, and carry yourself), you can transform how you feel about yourself, how other people see and treat you, and who you are.”

Alkon explains a few other related concepts, citing the studies that back them, and the last part of the book is a sort of “how-to” manual mostly based on exposure therapy. Essentially, if you are afraid of spiders, you need to be exposed to spiders, feel the intensity of your fear, and then notice when being near a spider doesn’t kill you. That’s a very nutshell example, but I’m giving you the gist. Alkon lays out some ideas for exposure to anxiety-inducing social situations and guides you through the process.

As someone who’s fairly educated about social anxiety, I didn’t read a whole lot that was new here, per se, but I liked that she gave us the science and then told us how to apply it at the end (science→help). I’ll definitely be trying some of the exposure techniques. And you better believe I’m gonna’ keep faking it ’til I make it. It’s science!

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Nonfiction, Uncategorized, What Ben Read

Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party

1So the guys behind a podcast called “Dinner Party Download” wrote a book titled Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party. One might assume that they are not completely impartial, and one would be absolutely correct. The anti-brunch case is argued very loosely, with the general thrust being that it is too commercial and also prone to making you lazy and day-drunk.

The perspective is hipster-ish, and slanted toward single people who enjoy having drinks (though they do make allowances for teetotalers and those blessed with progeny). If you’re not the target market, either read the book as anthropology or don’t bother. The authors know their target market and pander unashamedly.

All that aside, it was a fun read. There is something to be said for a dinner party: friends coming together for the purpose of enjoying good food, good company, and perhaps some mild hijinks. Adding a little more DIY to our socializing could be both good for camaraderie and easier on our budgets. And the book is sprinkled with enough banter, anecdotes, humor, and practical tips to keep it light and enjoyable. Underneath all their tomfoolery, the authors are earnest in their evangelization.

Also, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a twist ending that definitely made me chuckle.

Fun and funny
4/5 Mimosas

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Fiction, Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

2 mini-reviews: The Year of Less and Break in Case of Emergency

Why am I grouping these two books together, you may ask. Well, for no other reason than that I finished them both over the weekend. They don’t particularly go together although they’re both easy reads.

The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders

1I was semi-interested in this book because I am a follower of personal finance blogs in the hopes that their frugality will rub off on me. Cait Flanders is a veteran in this arena. So I snagged her book at the library and, honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting, but in a good way.

Flanders has a relatable voice, the same that comes across on her blog, and I found her really endearing as she describes her foibles and failed plans along the way to financial stability. She also talks about her family life, weight loss, and her decision to give up drinking, admitting her failures along the way, which is what really got me. She was so open and honest about her struggles and didn’t try to make poetry of them like hardcore memoir-writers do. I appreciated that. Sometimes you just want to peek into someone’s life without a literary education.

Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter

2I discovered this book on this list of The 12 Worst Workplaces in Contemporary Literature. The library had a copy, so I grabbed it on Saturday and read it in a couple of hours.

If you work in an office, or if you’ve ever had to forward someone an email you already sent them to prove you did something, you’ll probably enjoy this one. It’s the story of Jen who’s been laid off during the economic crisis of the mid-aughts. She gets hired as a communications person for a nonprofit organization called LIFt, which ostensibly has the mission of empowering girls and women the world over, guided by a “weird jumble of Buddhism and libertarianism.” The first scene is a meeting in which company head Leora Infinatas (self-named) throws out incomprehensible platitudes as ideas in an effort to have a meaningful exchange with her employees. Everything’s very meaningful at LIFt.

Having encountered that particular brand of empty rah-rah, speaking-in-motivational-quotes bullshit through any acquaintance who’s ever participated in an MLM scheme, I was intrigued to see how this kind of language would be laid out in a novel.

Unfortunately, I found Winter’s writing to be cumbersome, packed with lengthy sentences stacked on top of one another. It’s a dense-ness that, I imagine, felt easier to write than it was to read.

This isn’t even the longest, but it’s a good example of the many actions and concepts that can be crammed into a Jessica Winter sentence or two:

“Jen stifled a smile and looked down at her open notebook, where she’d written board meeting notes with her fountain pen and gradually added serifs and flourishes until the letters became a row of gerbera daisies and flamingo lilies. From the first time they’d met, Jen recognized Karina as a master of the filibuster, but she hadn’t yet seen Karina cast the spell on Leora—the gift of shrouding any and every topic in a fluffy word cloud of reiterative agreement until the original query was swallowed up in the woozy vapor of resounding enthusiasm for an unstated but sublime goal.”

The text is blocky like that most of the way through, though it’s broken up at times by delightful dialogue, the most enjoyable being exchanges between main character Jen and her manager, Karina. Karina gives poor Jen no real guidance, even when Jen asks for it directly, and is the kind of boss that criticizes Jen for arriving 12 minutes late to work one morning after a fertility treatment.

Here’s a wee taste of the delightful horseshit Winter is poking fun at:

“Look, Jen,” Karina said to her computer, “if this opportunity just isn’t calling your name—if you just can’t hear it—I understand completely. There’s plenty of other people on the LIFt team who might be able to strike that harmony the moment they hear the tune, so to speak.” Karina clicked her mouse to open an email.

“No, no, I’m excited to go—I can hear the harmony!” said Jen, finally succumbing again to the lure of the cushion-laugh. “I can’t wait. Apologies for giving off a different impression.”

“Like I said, just open yourself up to the journey,” Karina said to her email.

So, those parts of the novel are definitely enjoyable. The rest was a sort of superficial exposition of Jen’s marriage, female friendships, and fertility issues. Lots of meaty topics there, but none of them delved too deep, and I wasn’t interested anyway.

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