Dec 30, 2017

9 Awesome Books I Read in 2017

I did NOT read as many books this past year as is my usual habit. Most of this came down to new fatherhood and learning - by doing - to take care of a small human. Parenthood, it turns out, takes an enormous amount of time and energy (and love). Here's a list of nine books I read this year that stood out to me (I read maybe 15 or so in total, but some of them didn't make the cut) and might be worth your time as well.

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki

Sasaki’s very simply-written and elegantly-argued short book was one of the biggest mind-shifting books I read this year. Reading this coincided with a personal journey of downsizing and digitalizing, so it offered a lot of material for reflection.

Sasaki writes: "
Reducing the number of possessions that you have is not a goal unto itself. I think minimalism is a method for individuals to find the things that are genuinely important to them. It’s a prologue for crafting your own unique story."

Excessive possessions can weigh us down. Getting them out of our lives might allow some potential to grow back into our ideas. Sasaki writes "The only way to focus on the important things is to reduce the things that aren’t important." 

Not mixing up the important and unimportant is a big thing in this book. For instance, he points out that discarding memorabilia is not the same as discarding memories. Sasaki quotes Tatsuya Nakazaki: “Even if we were to throw away photos and records that are filled with memorable moments, the past continues to exist in our memories…All the important memories that we have inside us will naturally remain.” Sasaki recommends digitalizing old photos and letters. They take up no room, but are always there in the archives if you want to reference them.

The sense of freedom a person might experience when owning fewer things is undeniable. Luxury, for instance, becomes a different concept. Sasaki expresses the joy he experiences when he visits a hotel or a friend who uses big bath towels. He has limited himself to a microfiber quick-drying hand towel for all his household needs.

At the end of this small book, Sasaki reminds us the clarity that comes with minimalism. Focus is easier. Waste is greatly reduced. Social relationships are enhanced. You don’t need ninety seconds in a disaster to decide what to take. You live in the now.

The translation of this book is wonderful, by Eriko Sugita. It does not read like a translation, but as an intimate memoir by someone who has been through the hard work of paring down his possessions. And because of this, his own personality shines through. It is a kind of gift.

Even if one doesn’t discard a thing after reading this book, the notions lay a foundation for new ways of thinking. Or as one reviewer on Goodreads states, "Gratitude grows in the absence of things."

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory

I enjoyed this book so much. It is sort of Arrested Development meets The Royal Tennenbaums, but with a sci-fi twist. The story follows the eccentric Telemachus family over 20 years and spans three generations. Most of the family has some level of psychic powers. They get mixed up with the CIA, the local mob and a skeptic trying to discredit their powers.

The Telemachus family is headed by Teddy, the stylish conman patriarch. His adult children, for different reasons, have all returned to the roost: Irene is a single mom and human lie detector which wrecks havoc on her relationships; Frankie can move objects with his mind (sometimes) and is in debt to the mob; and Buddy, the youngest, can see the future and has completely withdrawn into himself. Irene's son, Matty, is also starting to display powers of his own.

This book is madcap (a word I don't use often), tender, cheeky and hilarious. The characters are so fully sketched and all have these amazing arcs. In fact, the writing itself is stellar. Gregory alternates each chapter with a different character's point of view (kind of like how Game of Thrones does it). The compound plot exquisitely comes together at the end, despite a rather intricate jumping around in the timeline.

Highly recommended!

Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday

This is one of the books I read right at the end of the year. I consumed it after venturing into Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic (see below), and the two books kinda compliment each other, though they come at things from different angles.

Holiday lays out a rather no-nonsense, practical approach to creating and releasing into the world a lasting - or perennial - work of art. The really useful parts outline a kind of long-term thinking and all-encompassing approach to marketing. This is definitely something I will need to return to to reread in the future.

The Dramatic Imagination: Reflections and Speculations on the Art of the Theatre by Robert Edmond Jones

Jones originally wrote and published this book in the early 1940s. What is so initially striking is how well written and well expressed his thoughts are on the vital importance of true imagination in Theatre. This is a book that treats the theatre artist as a just that - an artist - and treats the theatre as a elegant and complex art form. 

This book is wonderfully inspirational and insightful into exactly WHY some of us seek to attain a life in the theatre despite lack of pay, prestige, etc. Jones also tackles why theatre has ALWAYS stood the test of time and always will.

I had this on my list for years and was glad I finally got to it this past year. No doubt, it will be something I return to again in the future as well.

Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott

This was a delightful little book. Scott offers a sort of fictionalized/idealized set of observations she picked up as an an exchange student in Paris, staying with a French family run by a mentorish matriarch. 

Scott's simple observations and her quick wit make for a fast, light read. In a nutshell the book celebrated the urbane, the simple, the civilized and the elegant. It is more about enjoying the good things, because you deserve it, than it is necessarily about being French. 

The two parts that impacted me most were Scott's reflections on how Madame Chic handled clothing and dishes. 

Chic always wore her best clothes. She only owned a few articles and those pieces composed a sort of capsule wardrobe. No sweatpants, no tees, no flipflops. Restrained elegance and consistent composure. In one episode, Scott recounts meeting Madame Chic in the hallway to the tiny kitchen as Scott was on her way to pilfer a late-night snack (between-meal snacking being frowned upon by Chic). Chic, clad in silk pajamas covered by a resectable robe scolds Scott for her tattered t-shirt and baggy sweats and takes her the next day to buy proper pajamas. Scott points out that was the only time she ever saw any member of the household in night clothes. Everyone always dressed for the whole day before they left their bedrooms each morning.

Scott also reports her surprise and delight that Chic's family eats on their best dishes everyday for every meal (which always happens in courses and at the table, with etiquette and conversation expected). The best meant they ate on their finest China. I think this is great and I have been trying to talk my wife into this approach since reading the book.

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough

I love McCullough's work. This one is a bunch of speeches he has given over the past several decades and I listened to it on audio (McCullough's voice fits his writing so well). 

 McCullough's optimism, sincerity and ability to see the story in the turbulent events as well as quiet details that make up the American experience makes this collection sparkle. 

It was especially inspiring to key into McCullough's outlook in light of the political and societal disasters America has been undergoing over the last year. It may be unique in its particular details (for instance, the presidency - as a position and a symbol - has just been shat all over by the current idiot-in-chief), but America has had setbacks and hardships throughout its history and the collective spirit to do the right thing has course-corrected us time and time again. 

McCullough has that rare gift... to inspire in the reader an urge to be better: a better, more deserving citizen and another link in the long chain of creative, passionate, flawed and innovative characters that make up the history of the United States. At least, it was so for me.

Big Magic: Creating Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Oh man, this came along at the right time. I held off reading this until just recently and it just kind of struck a cord with me.

Let me be up-front, despite the popular backlash and admittedly non-traditional lifestyle she lives, I am a fan of Gilbert. I enjoyed Eat, Pray Love. A lot. I like her TED talk and I recently discovered her podcast.

There are a lot of take aways from the book, some I agree with, some I don't. Regardless, her unique outlook on a creative life is ALWAYS fodder for reflection. Here are a few things that stuck with me...

Ideas exist outside of us and come to us as vessels for realizing them. I'd read this idea about ideas before in the books of Laurence Boldt, but Gilbert kinda takes this belief as an assumption- no, a fact - and runs with it. I don't buy completely into this, but I do like that it sets up art making as both a mundane activity and something deeply sacred.

Everything sucks sometimes. Even making art. In fact, one of her best thoughts is on making art for money. She believes it should be reversed... you should work to support your art-making, not make art for a living, as work. Why burden your creative life with paying the bills? I love this.

Lastly (for this write-up), Gilbert says a creative life is its own reward. It is a courageous life. Criticism, rejection and self-doubt will be there. You gotta want it more than you are afraid of it. That part is so, so true!

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

Great, basic discussion of story (especially screenwriting). Nothing really super ground-breaking, but a great reminder about narrative structure.  The book is packed with story breakdowns, concepts, and techniques.

I should mention, I read this while working this past year on a full-length play. Totally did the trick of serving as a wonderful reminder of how narrative works and why.

I liked Truby's idea that the protagonist should have both a need and a desire. The need serves to hook the audience, while the desire is personal to the character. Speaking of character, Truby offers lots of wonderful nuggets of wisdom, such as: a good story doesn't have random individuals so much as it has a group of characters who offer variations on the themes of the narrative (thus the antagonist usually wants the same thing as the protagonist, just presents an alternative way of pursuing it). 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

First, I was happy to hear my good friend Emily Woo Zeller as the reader of the audiobook. Such a great voice.

I found Kondo rather fastidious throughout the book, but I could totally see the appeal for so many people. She takes very seriously something that seems very simple... tidying up and organizing our homes. In fact, I have never heard the word "tidying" used so much before in my life.

Though I do not relate with her assumption that objects have feelings and should be treated like small inanimate people (the way this is presented in the book, to me, makes Kondo seem childish and naive), I did find two great take-aways.

1.) I like the same thing everyone seems to like about the book... that an object should "spark joy."

2.) That sometimes an object fulfills its purpose by showing us that it is not somethng we should own. The example she uses in the book is clothes that don't work. The purpose of these clothes might be to tell us that we don't look good in them and should wear something else. When it comes to discarding, it is easier to get rid of things we feel we have gotten "our money's worth" out of. I find this idea by Kondo an elegant way of getting use out of our items.

I read this... and listened (I switched to the audiobook partway through) while also reading Fumio Sasaki's Goodbye, Things. The two books kind of work off each other. Kondo's being the prissy, lite version to Sasaki's more extreme ideas.

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  1. Thank you for including Madame Chic in your list! I'll be sure to share this with my readers when I return to my blog. Happy new year to you! - Jennifer L. Scott

    1. Thank you for a wonderful book. All the best for 2018.

  2. Jennifer, I'm so glad to see your book on this list. Lessons from Madame Chic, is a little book that changed my life for the better!