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Greg McKeown – Essentialism

Book Cover

Less is more.

Publisher: Crown Business (Random House)
Pages: 246
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-804-13738-6
First Published: 15th April 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th April 2014
Rating: 4/5

McKeown discusses the essentialist way of being (choosing only those options in life and work that will get you closer to your goal and forgetting those that distract you and use up time).

Essentialism is a relatively short and informative book, which whilst a little repetitive and high in case studies, succeeds in suggesting why McKeown’s thoughts are of use.

The author urges us to do the opposite of common working practises. He says to take on only a few tasks and excel in them, rather than to try and do everything. He notes a good night’s sleep as essential, in happy contradiction to the idea that a sleepless worker is a hero. And he recommends actively saying ‘no’ when we want, instead of saying ‘yes’ to what we actually don’t want – those things that will ultimately waste our time. He includes tales from his own life in a way that simply teaches, never preaches.

(It is an interesting concept when you think about how bloggers initially feel they should say ‘yes’ to every request, and how they can become better bloggers by being more in control of what they want to read and discuss, when they are more selective.)

McKeown recounts a conversation he had with a person who remarked that we are no longer bored. We have phones that text and can access the Internet whilst we’re in a queue, for example. No longer being bored is of course good, but McKeown notes the fact that it means we have less, even no, time for thinking.

It is interesting to consider McKeown’s values, what he hopes we’ll adopt. To view it as a list it reads as a holiday plan – time to think; less to do; more sleep; not being so busy; time for play and leisure; done is better than perfect. McKeown’s focus on quality is key to his argument. Discuss with your boss if a task given to you won’t get done, make time for your family. It’s intriguing to note that the author’s method of working means spending more time thinking about options than you would, but he discusses how planning saves time in the long run.

Overall the book is a good read and full of value, but there does come a point where you feel he could have applied ‘less is more’ to his content. He starts to repeat information, which may fit his thoughts on routines helping memory but isn’t necessary in a short book. There are a few too many stories where it would’ve been better to simply carry on discussing strategies. The book isn’t particularly well-written but that’s not important in regards to its purpose. This said, fewer instances of non-classic media being called classic, fewer uses of the word ‘classic’ in general, would have rid the book of its slight ‘name-drop’ atmosphere.

Essentialism provides a thorough grounding in a better way to live and work. It will best suit those who already have thoughts in mind to change, though almost everyone will find it of use in some way.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Next Stop Procrastination (Pilot Post)

A photo of Shibam in Yemen

This photograph was taken by Will de Freitas.

Like, I expect, everyone who uses the Internet, I often come across interesting or downright fascinating articles. I’ll read them and not know what to do next. Will my family be interested if I bring the subject up at the dinner table? Is it the sort of information my friends would be interested in hearing or reading? I used to post such articles to Twitter, and I know a fair few people read them, but after a while I felt it was verging on spamming, whether it actually was or not.

I stopped. And I miss it because sometimes you come across something you just know is interesting generally.

So this post is an experiment. I’ve compiled a list of interesting articles and pages I’ve come across over the last week, and I’m sharing it here for your perusal. They’re not all about books but I hope you’ll like them anyway. Let me know what you think of this post idea – if you like it I may consider turning it into a semi-frequent feature, say once every few weeks.

The links

The Manhattan of the Desert – A brief introduction to the high-rise town of Shibam in Yemen, dating back to the 1500s. Life Edited is a company that aims to make life compact so their angle is economical and environmental.

Solar Charging Ereader – An option to consider when the battery inevitably dies? These instructions require patience and slicing through the device, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Before finding this I learned the unfortunate fact that some Kobos have their batteries glued in. I’m hoping mine lives a long life!

Egg Storage, Freshness & Food Safety – Want to know how to store those leftover eggs whites/yolks? This post sums up the options. This link is the result of a yoke-only carbonara earlier this week.

People Matching Their Bodies to Book Covers – Admittedly the placement of the covers aren’t perfect in this one, but it’s worth a quick look, especially if you liked the concept of holding a photo of a location at the location itself.

Potato Side Dishes – This is a gallery linking to many different ideas. I loved it from the first one, but to borrow a phrase from author Shannon Stacey, the jalapeño roasted potatoes sound like potato wedges of doom (tough, but a lot of fun!)

What has piqued your interest on the Internet lately?

Peggy Riley – Amity & Sorrow

Book Cover

When one marriage leads to another.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Hachette)
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-755-39436-4
First Published: 1st March 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2014
Rating: 3/5

When the fire started burning down her polygamist community, Amaranth took her two daughters and escaped. Happy to marry and comfortable with her growing family, if uneasy about the ceremonies, Amaranth was glad to defend her people as women left and those living nearby took an interest in what was going on. But after her good friends leave and her husband draws their daughter too close, the first wife knows she and her daughters must leave, too.

Amity & Sorrow is the story of the plight of a mother who has become too used to her life. Interestingly, it is not so much about the plight of her daughters, which is the reason for some of the issues.

There is just something ‘off’ about the book. The cult is presented fairly well, but the writing style doesn’t fit the subject. Even though the reader knows the cult is bad, and has the details to imagine the situation, the literary style of writing distances you from it. The story may include the information, but it doesn’t truly try convince you of it, even if you are convinced.

It’s interesting to look at the choice the author made as to where the mother and daughters would end up. On the one hand you have them crashing the car into what many would see as a backwards place – a farm worked by only a couple of people; an ancient television set; a rarely-used petrol station; a lack of modern technology despite its day. What this choice means is that the family have little opportunity to see what life is like for the vast majority, to get used to the ‘new’, and to rehabilitate. This in turn means that the book lacks any big moments in the plot besides those in the flashbacks and at the end, and that whilst they escaped you might not feel as though the women will truly live life to the full, especially as Amaranth seems happy to remain in the first place they find.

But on the other hand, this lack of modernity, this lack of computers (other than one instance in a town) and so forth, mean that the family are eased into the world. It means that the changes in Amaranth especially (the girls will be discussed in due course) are slow and she has time to get back to life as it was when she was a member of society. You see more of her adjustment than you would if she’d found herself in Silicon Valley, or the like, where the change would have been immediate but only on the surface for its suddenness. Beginning in the middle of nowhere in a place more familiar in lifestyle, there is perhaps less of a chance she’ll return to the husband who brainwashed their daughter.

The sisters, Amaranth’s daughters, Amity and Sorrow, were born on their father’s land and therefore their reaction to their mother’s escape is, if not in words, that she has kidnapped them. Sorrow especially wants to return; she is the sister most brainwashed by her father, the cult’s leader. It is in Amity, the less extreme of the two, that the reader gets to see the most progression. Amity is more open to change, and whilst it may seem a little too fast a progression at times, Amity’s growth makes up for the little growth otherwise.

It is in Sorrow’s experience, specifically, that the story lies, and it’s also in her life that the potential dissatisfaction with the ending is to be found. She is not as developed a character as the others, in fact it could be said that she is a plot device; yet without her Riley wouldn’t have been able to explain her points. Sorrow was impregnated by her father, who had sex with her, having brainwashed her so much that she believed it was important and right that she and her father ‘make Jesus’. Whilst not commented on in the text itself, there is the obvious theme of consent running throughout the book. Incest itself is discussed.

And because it is this event that wakes Amaranth to the reality, finally, (if even then late in the day), the story continues on with Sorrow’s extremist beliefs taking what amounts to the biggest element of the book. Sorrow is always looking for a way back, because she doesn’t know any different and she is at an age where she won’t listen to her mother, especially not a mother who has left her, Sorrow’s, glorious father. The issue here is that whilst Sorrow’s extremism is believable, the extent to which she is, to all intents and purposes, encouraged, is not. Amaranth spends very little time with her daughters, even though, as the one person in the three who knows about the real world, she should have been helping them. Instead she starts to make a life for herself by herself.

A warning here to anyone who doesn’t want to read too many details: the ending of the book needs to be discussed because of what it effectively does, and will be in this paragraph. Amaranth, though obviously scared and still suffering from the manipulation and abuse under her husband, shows, in leaving the cult, that she still has her wits about her. She knows what is right and wrong both in regards to her own beliefs and the world at large, and she takes her daughters away from their father. Due to this escape, it is hard to believe that in the real world, such a woman would ultimately leave her daughter back at the cult’s land together with the father, after having tried and failed to convince the daughter to return with her to their new home. Maybe she would leave her temporarily while she went to the police for help, but leave her there for good? You can’t say that due to the possibility for danger, as the daughter is very unstable, it is best she stay away from Amaranth and Amity – the girl has had no chance to change and the handful of days during which there was space to influence her were not enough. At worst there are places she could be sent away for care. Perhaps Riley is showing us just how brainwashed and scared someone can become, but given everything that Amaranth does and thinks beforehand, the conclusion is not at all sufficient.

Where Amity & Sorrow gets it right is in the small things – the wondering about the changes to the world since Amaranth left it; the comparisons of dress and its relation to sexuality; the overall consideration of religious cults; to some extent, Amity. But with its poor choice of voice, underdeveloped characters, and the knowledge the reader will be left with when it’s over – the knowledge that what you’ve read is very wrong on a completely different level to the basic wrongness of the cult – one would be hard-pressed to recommend it for its story. You could try to come up with an explanation for the ending, but this is one book for which the ending is impossible to make right.

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Lindy Woodhead – Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge

Book Cover

“The customer is always right,” he said.

Publisher: Profile Books
Pages: 261
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-781-25058-7
First Published: 1st October 2007
Date Reviewed: 3rd April 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

After many years at Marshall & Field in Chicago, Harry Gordon Selfridge crossed the Atlantic with his family to create a department store in London. At the cutting edge of retail, Selfridge’s was successful. As time went on Harry bought out more locations, but spent the money on women and gambling. His decisions away from retail would define his later years.

Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge is a fairly short book that details Selfridge’s creation, the effects of war on an already changing society, and, of course, the social changes that came with burgeoning technology and increasing gender equality. Straight forward in its approach, the book lacks excitement and bias, but it does fall off the beaten path sometimes.

The beaten path in question is that of the subject – whilst Selfridge is Woodhead’s focus, the author does pause the narrative many times to profile a ‘bit player’ of the story, and although the title may suggest the book is about more than the American retailer, the profiling is irrelevant and filler content. People are introduced with a full background history after which it turns out their relation to Selfridge is minimum and short-lived and there are dozens and dozens of people mentioned who, in contrast, aren’t detailed at all. (These latter people aren’t often famous or known to us nowadays, which means that unless you have a background in retail or a great knowledge of the early 20th century, the names will mean little.) Those who play big roles in Selfridge’s life are detailed, understandably, but other than that you can’t help wondering if Woodhead shouldn’t have just written a shorter book.

And sadly for Selfridge, the amount of content not relevant to him means that there is simply not enough of the book dedicated to him. Perhaps Selfridge’s life was too straight forward to warrant a lengthy text, either way it does at times seem as though he has been pushed to the sidelines, a strange coincidence given what happened to him in life.

What is best about the book is surely its general style. Woodhead is largely unbiased; the book lacks opinions and is more of a report, even more so, perhaps than it is a biography. There is no particular flare to the writing which can make it dry, and there is little humour beyond the quotations and paraphrasing, but there is a lot here that will be of interest to modern historians, social historians, those who enjoy shopping, and technology enthusiasts. Woodhead includes a handle of suppositions but they are never expanded upon as opinions of the author, they are only furthered if it was a common view of the time. This is an account of what happened and little more.

And whilst it may also wander from the beaten path, the updates as to social context are informative and set the scene well. The stories of war, the gambling tables, the changing fashions that stores had to cater to, provide another dimension to the book and show just how swift modernity arrived once it had started. The changing attitudes to women both by way of clothes and the way women worked are interesting, and as Selfridge was very much in favour of women being able to shop by themselves, to go to restaurants and so forth – even if there was a personal benefit to him in sales – the theme of gender and equality is returned to many times.

The book ends abruptly; there is no epilogue. Anyone looking to known who owns Selfridge’s today or simply what happened after the initial change in management will need to research for themselves.

Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge isn’t fast-paced, a book that is hard to put down, or written in your typically juicy style to match the juicy contents, but it will leave you with a good knowledge of the man, the times, and the views. Recommended most obviously to those interested in retail history, the book will find a place in the minds of a great many readers for its historical appeal.

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Missing The First Pages (Or How Starting A New Book Is Often Overwhelming)

A photo of pages of a book being flicked through

This photograph was taken by Palo.

I don’t know whether to speak of this in terms of something I ‘have’, ‘deal with’, ‘find an issue with’ or simply just neutrally. I will sometimes start reading a new book only to find, a few pages in, that I’ve not truly been reading. The first few pages have gone over my head; the only thing I’ve acknowledged is the oft-cited-to-be-important first sentence. Sometimes it’s annoying. I’ll go back and re-read those pages. Other times I simply accept that it has happened like so many times before, and that I’ll be truly into the book by the start of the second chapter. (This of course depends on chapter length – if the chapter is long I’m reading perfectly already by chapter two.)

I find this… phenomenon… happens regardless of whether or not I have high expectations for the book, but that it happens most often if I’m really excited to read it. (I reckon you can be excited to read a book with low expectations – I would be excited to read Cranford, but as I didn’t like North And South my expectations would be low.)

I’ve thought about it over and over again, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it stems from the excitement of wanting to read the book taking over the actual present enjoyment. Rarely are the first few pages of a book amazing, and indeed I’ve often found that a dull beginning can herald a brilliant book. An epic novel is always going to need to spend time on the background information. I think there is something to be said for being so excited that you want to get past that background as quickly as possible. And as much as we often lament having already read a book and being unable to ever go back to quite the same state of wonder as when we were in the midst of it, it’s natural to want the reverse before you’ve begun.

Often going back and re-reading the pages works, but sometimes it doesn’t and it’s a case of skimming them for any names, locations, and so forth, and letting the rest go. The pressure, whether felt or not, of knowing you’ve not taken the information in and knowing you should have, can have a negative impact, ultimately meaning you won’t succeed if you tried, anyway. A remedy can be found in putting the book aside for a while, but when you’re excited you don’t want to do that.

I’ve accepted this oddness in my reading, though obviously I feel guilty and sometimes a bad reader for it. But the good thing is it doesn’t impair your knowledge of the work in general, and if or when you re-read the book, the position you are in then of having read it before and thus containing a difference of excitement, means you’re far more grounded. And that happens whether you missed pages the first time or not.

Does your excitement over a book affect your reading of it in any way?


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