A well-rounded meal when you’re feeling “Overwhelmed”

The common answer to questions like “how are you doing?” or “how was your weekend?” is “Busy.” “Busy” is a word that I frequently use as a descriptor for my life, but it was often code for overwhelmed. This is why Brigid Schulte’s book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has the Time” peaked my interest. This book can be applicable to anyone who feels that they are overwhelmed by commitments they are juggling, but this book’s primary focus is on the overwhelm faced by working mothers. With movies like “Bad Moms” and the rise of the Simplicity Parenting movement, it is clear that parents are struggling to find a less chaotic normal for themselves, and this book is a great addition to the conversation. Schulte fills the pages with informative data on how we spend our time and the effects of stress on the brain, interviews with workplaces and individuals who are trying to change the overwhelm story for working parents, and personal anecdotes of the author’s own struggle as a working mother.

I really enjoyed how Schulte divided the book to deal with issues around work, love (children, marriage), and play (hobbies, downtime, fun). She shows how each has an important role in a person’s health and wellbeing. She explores how North American women got to this harried existence of work and family with little time for themselves. She also gives a great summary at the end of the book about how to achieve a better balance and decrease the sense of overwhelm. One woman she interviewed even challenged the notion that we should seek balance and instead asked herself questions like: “Am I trying my best? Am I doing things for the right reason? Do I make those I love feel loved? Am I happy?” (p.259) These sound like questions that are easier to answer than “have I achieved a balanced life” and perhaps easier to find the solutions to get to the “yes” for each of these life questions. Changing the questions we ask ourselves might change some of the pressures people feel about all the different roles they need to play and goals they need to achieve.

I think the biggest “ah-ha” moment I had when reading this book was this statement from Terry Monaghan, the productivity expert: “What busy and overwhelmed people need to realize, she said, is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do…..You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now?” (p.256) My to-do list will always be there. The house will always need more cleaning. There will always be more exercise I should do. There will always be food to make. There will always be the feeling that I should spend more time with my kid. There will always be emails coming in at work. There will always be deadlines to meet.

So I have started looking more careful at what I am choosing to do. The other day, I decided to turn off the stove in the middle of making a casserole, and join my husband and daughter who had gone on an impromptu trip to the park on a sunny afternoon. I finished the casserole a couple of hours later than I intended, but if I had stayed to cross it off my list for the afternoon, I would have missed seeing my daughter’s smile on the slide. Another night, I made the decision that what was important was stretching out my shoulder knots at a yoga class. The timing meant I missed eating dinner with my family, but I was in less pain and relaxed when I came home, so I was more present for bedtime stories and end-of-day conversations. I’m trying to put away some of my unrealistic expectations around home, parenting, womanhood, and work and be more purposeful in what I choose (plan, do, review) so I can let go of some of my overwhelm.

Well-written, well-researched, and wellness-focussed; there are great lessons in “Overwhelmed” that can help you find a better enjoyment in work, love and play.

5/5 bacon strips

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Philippa Gregory: A recipe for good historical fiction

I first came upon Philippa Gregory through the popularity of “The Other Boleyn Girl”, which then prompted me to want to read the other books in the series about Henry VIII’s six wives. And like the author, I became fascinated with this time period. I’ve never been able to find anyone who can capture my attention with historical fiction the way that Philippa Gregory can. She paints a vivid picture of the time period through the description of clothing, landscape, and cultural expectations without bogging the reader down in too much detail. Sometimes she passes through months in a few pages, giving a general date (Winter 1484) and a brief synopsis of the important (interesting) details through the eyes of the character. Just enough to keep the reader informed about what is going on without making us wait for pages while letters are being delivered or troops are waiting to sail in less choppy waters. Luckily, there’s isn’t a lot of sitting around and waiting for something to happen because in this time frame in history, there is a lot going on in England (and France).

I also appreciate the fictional flare Philippa Gregory gives to the characters and plots. She takes a historical detail like the leg wound of Henry VIII and describes the smell it would have caused due to infection, how that would have affected him as a lover to his young mistress, and how that may have affected the actions of his court while he is ill. And there is always a love story in the middle of all of the political intrigue, which makes these books all the more entertaining to me.

I am realizing something new about Philippa Gregory’s books as I’m reading through her Plantagenet and Tudor series (revisiting some old favourites and discovering new books in the series). Gregory writes these books not just because the storylines offer something juicy to sink her imaginative writing skills into, but because she is fascinated by the important women in this time period and the very little that has been written about them. Each book is told from the perspective of a woman (or two) that played a role in the significant events of the Plantagenet and Tudor battles for the English throne or in other events that changed how England functioned as a country, but these women are largely unrecognized. These are women whom Gregory may only have a picture and a few mentions in the historical books, and she delves into studying all she can find on these women, the lives they lived, and the historical events they shaped. She even wrote a historical book with two historians called “The Women of the Cousins’ War” to tell more of the history of these women separate from her fictional flourishes of their narratives. I love that she is giving voice to these women and giving a readers a picture into what it was like to be a high status woman during this time period.

If you’re looking for a good place to start to see if Philippa Gregory’s books are for you, then I recommend “The Constant Princess”, which is the story of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. This will set you off into the saga that is Henry VII with his many wives and his country-altering decisions about England and the Church. From this novel, you can read through the rest in the Tudor series and see how each of the six wives fare with Henry VIII and the effect they have on the kingdom. Or you can be really ambitious like me and start at the first book (chronologically) in the Gregory’s series, “The Lady of the Rivers”, which will take you back to the beginning of the battle to be the ruling royal family begins. There are 13 books in this series (so far) and the final book, “The Last Tudor”, was just released. And then there are the two following books that look into the reigns of Queen Mary and her sister, Queen Elizabeth. I’m just finishing up “The White Queen” and I’m hoping to finish the series before the end of the year. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Let me know where you plan to start in the series and what your thoughts are once you’ve read through a Philippa Gregory novel. Also, I would love to hear about your favourite author of historical fiction. Perhaps there is another series I can simmer in through the cold winter months.

Happy reading!

5/5 bacon strips for Philippa Gregory (just in general, her books are awesome!)

Books to sink your teeth into this summer

Recently, a friend asked to borrow a couple of books that would be good for summer reading. I selected books based on what I knew of her taste, but it made me think of what I would recommend for a good summer read. I know the lists out there are copious under this topic, but it’s what has been rolling around in my mind (and getting the eggs cracking to write a blog post after a 6-month hiatus) so I’m adding my two cents to the mix!

AMI MCKAY. Read AMI MCKAY. She is the author that broke my book lull back in March and restored my hope in reading. She has three books and they are all wonderful: “The Birth House” (4.5/5 bacon strips), “The Virgin Cure” (5/5 bacon strips), and “The Witches of New York” (5/5 bacon strips). Here is my recommended approach to her repertoire:

First, read “The Witches of New York”. This is her most recent novel. It is packed with a fascinating mixture of burgeoning modernity, the everyday survival of women in late 1800s New York, fairy tales, kidnapping, and love. What’s not to love about that! I definitely enjoy historical fiction set in this era, and McKay masterfully mixes magic and reality in this novel. This book is fast-paced and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next (or what really just happened in that moment: was it a ghost? is she really talking to the dead? how much is magic and how much is intuition?).

Next, read “The Virgin Cure”. This novel features one of the main women from “The Witches of New York”, Adelaide Thom, and tells her story when she was known as Moth. This novel centres on the young girl as she struggles to find a way to provide and protect herself in New York. In a CBC interview, McKay says that the character of Moth came back to her as she was writing “The Witches of New York” and so she felt compelled to continue to write of the journey of Moth as she transformed into Adelaide Thom. So don’t expect all of your questions about Moth/Adelaide to be answered as this is not an origins prequel. However, I did find it enhanced to read “The Virgin Cure” in light of who I know this little girl to grow up to be, which is why I’m recommending these books be read in reverse of their publishing order. I was more in tune to Moth’s little habits and predisposition to magical allurement that I might have otherwise missed.

And if after both of these novels, you still some days of summer left, then bury your nose into “The Birth House”, Ami McKay’s first novel. This is an interesting look into how the birthing experience was for women in isolated communities during the early 1900s, and exhibits a strong, independent female character (in a time where that was rare) and how she cares for the women around her. This book follows more of the familiar themes and landscape of many Atlantic Canadian authors. Although quieter than McKay’s next two novels, it is in no way boring.

What I love about all of Ami McKay’s novels is the power that is evidenced by being woman. There is so much power is in their knowledge gained in their experience of being female: knowledge of human anatomy, knowledge of sexuality, knowledge of survival, knowledge in the spiritual, and knowledge in the power of community. These women expand the pages with their voices not because their message is loud or obnoxious, but because of the power that springs from their beauty, wit, and magic. And that is why these books are a must-read for this summer! or fall…or winter….or spring 😉

 

And so the table turns, as does each page….slowly

It’s official…I’m in a slump. I’ve had the stomach flu twice, food poisoning, and a bad reaction to antibiotics. Food has become unappealing, bland, and uninteresting. It has been two months and I have started 3 books. They have been forgettable, boring, and made me avoid my reading time. Even this lover of food and books can admit that sometimes they can get disappointing. So if your taste in books is similar to mine, then here are books I DO NOT RECOMMEND.

Lorrie Moore “A Gate at the Stairs” I really enjoyed Moore’s book of short stories “Birds of America”, and attended a very memorable book event she headlined. Unfortunately, her novel was very disappointing. It was overly descriptive with very little plot action. And yet even the couple of interesting plot points, like adoption and a funeral, were almost skimmed over in their minimal detail. 0/5 bacon strips

George Eliot “Middlemarch” I want to like this book. I like classics. Or at least I thought I did. Maybe I only like Jane Austen considering that is the only classical author I can recall reading with excitement in the past few years. This book is in the top 100 books of all time, and I found a copy with a beautiful illustrated cover. I started “Middlemarch” in mid-January and decided to take a break after finishing Part 1. I have yet to get more than a few pages into Part 2. I’m just not interested. The story is taking too long to flesh out and I’ve already gotten the multiple characters confused. I haven’t quite given up on this one yet but for now, I am giving it a “don’t bother picking this up”. (bacon strips TBA)

Kelly Oxford “Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar” Sometimes over-the-top stories are hilarious and humanizing like Jenny Lawson’s books. And other times, over-the-top stories highlight stupid decisions, pot-fueled entitlement, and unrelatable decisions. Kelly Oxford’s book of essays was that. After giving it almost a month, I gave up halfway through to try and find a book that would make me enjoy reading again. 0/5 bacon strips

I hope this post helps you narrow down the many book options out there, so your reading repertoire contain more books you love than books that bore. Here is to finding a book that makes me love reading again! And lip-smacking food my stomach won’t reject. (Pancakes are sounding good about now.)

 

Licking the plate clean-A book that was hard to put down

It is only my second book of the year, and already I found a book that is a contender for my top reads of 2017. This book reminds of this brunch I had at a little restaurant in downtown Oakville. It was my first meal out with a newborn and it was a restaurant I had been wanting to try for awhile. My daughter was sleeping in her stroller and I was sipping the best latte ever when my meal came. I closed my eyes in ecstasy with each bite of the apple butter brioche French toast smothered in blueberry maple syrup. You know when food is so good that you don’t want to ever stop eating it; in fact, you feel like you could eat it everyday? That’s how I felt eating this meal. But soon the plate was empty and my stomach was bursting to full, and I realized that part of what made this food so good was that I didn’t eat it every day….that was this book.

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“The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittal was so good that I considered pulling an all-nighter just so I didn’t have to put it down….But then I realized that I have a toddler to take care of and the book would be waiting for me the next morning after a good sleep. George, the husband and father and beloved teacher, maintains his innocence when arrested for sexual misconduct against female students. Whittal takes a unique approach on this timely topic. The reader is taken into the thoughts of Joan, the wife; Andrew, the son; and Sadie, the daughter, who are struggling to decide what to believe and how to continue with their lives in a town divided while waiting for George’s trial. Sexual assault cases are complex and emotional, yet Whittal writes about this charged topic in a way that isn’t offensive and that looks at an angle that I’d never considered-the accused’s family. They have to continue their lives during the months before the trial while facing judgement from the town and grappling with the implications of this event. Whittal satisfies some of our curiosity about George and the sexual assault charges, but doesn’t let the details to overshadow the point of this book, which is to allow Sadie, Joan and Andrew to tell their stories.

Although this book was amazing, I could not read a book like this everyday. I would find it hard to have a life with these must-find-out-more books needing to be read; and books like these wouldn’t seem so special if I encountered one with every read. Plus, the topic of this book was heavy and in touch with the conversations going on today about sexual assault, so very close to reality. How much do we really know about our loved ones? What are we each capable of? How do we protect those we love? How do we continue with our lives after our family is affected by a criminal event?

So be prepared that this book deals with a lot of deep questions, but it is 100% worth delving into them through this storyline. “The Best Kind of People” is heartbreaking, explorative, and shocking.

5/5 bacon strips

(Afterwards, I needed a lighter read so I picked up “The One and Only” by Emily Giffin. It was cheesy and entertaining, which I needed after Whittal’s serious read. Sometimes a book works because it is read at the right place and time even if it isn’t a writing masterpiece. 3/5 bacon strips)

Savour these titles from 2016!

This is just a quick post to start off the 2017 year. I’ve got a new review in the oven, but I realized I never posted my Top 5 Must-Read books from my 2016 reading list. I have included the link to my review of each book so you can get an idea of why I recommend them, or a short blurb for those I have neglected to blog a review of (sacrilege I know!). Happy reading!

  1. Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis click here (I know this one was only 4.5/5 bacon strips but it’s unique story and the fact that it is still stuck in my mind after 5 months is what pushes it over “The Poisonwood Bible” onto my Top 5 list)
  2. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson click here
  3. Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb click here
  4. Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend (This is a non-fiction book that I finished in December 2016 and it has changed my life. Cloud & Townsend provide wise advice in setting appropriate boundaries in your relationships, your work, and even with yourself. There is a Christian angle to many of their chapters, including a chapter on boundaries in your relationship with God, which I found very insightful. But if you are not a Christian, this book still provides invaluable guidance that will improve your relationship, help you find a better life balance, and really live out your value. It’s not easy (change rarely is), but the results are 100% worth the effort; as is finishing this book. 5/5 bacon strips)
  5. Left Neglected by Lisa Genova (Another well-written and captivating story from Genova that made it easy to flip each page, although heartbreaking to read the experiences of Sarah. After a car accident, Sarah experiences a brain injury that erases the left side of everything from her perspective (left hand, left side of the room, the fork on the left side of the plate). It was a strange concept for me yet Genova describes this odd injury so well that I was able to really picture what Sarah was going through. Genova also expertly navigates how neurological conditions affect family relationships as well as the life these patients once lived. I was caught up in cheering on Sarah as she attempted to find an equilibrium between the person she was and person she is now. 5/5 bacon strips)

Books of special note: “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” by Harvey Karp were the most helpful parenting books I read this past year. The first is great to read when you are expecting a baby or in the first few weeks of having a newborn, and the latter for any children ages 1-5 years old. Highly recommend both!

 

Comfort food=”Furiously Happy”

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“Furiously Happy” by Jenny Lawson is the best non-fiction book I have ever read. I’m not sure whether to call this book a memoir or a collection of essays, but whatever genre it falls under, it was captivating, hilarious, and heartwarming. Lawson skillfully writes episodes from her day-to-day life and brings the reader into her innermost thoughts. What makes her thoughts and daily stories so interesting is that they are fueled by her crazy antics with her cats, her silly fights with her husband, and her obsession with ethically-sourced taxidermy. And all of these stories are influenced by her battle with mental illness and insomnia.

Lawson is honest about her struggle with depression and social anxiety in a way that is rarely documented. She details her battle so you get a clear picture of how someone with these issues survives each day. Yet even though she describes her raw moments and offers words of encouragement to fellow battlers, this book is filled with laughter on each page as she reveals the humour in her craziness. This book shows that even though living with mental illness is hard, joy and love and laughter can still exist in your life. For Lawson, the way that mental illness has shaped her personality and her story seems to be the reason for the humour in her life.

As someone who also struggles with depression and anxiety, I was encouraged to read an honest account of someone living with mental illness and still thriving by the world’s standards-marriage, family, house, career. I was constantly laughing out loud at Lawson’s description of her various sleep disorders, her attempt to introduce her cats to water beds, and her adventures with her beloved stuffed raccoons (one is featured on the cover). I’m not giving away more than that, because you need to read these stories in her own words. The shock value of them is part of their hilarity. I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to laugh at people’s crazy antics and to anyone who struggles with mental illness. You are not alone and there can still be bright moments in life as we seek to be “Furiously Happy”!

5/5 bacon strips