Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Do you greet your house?

Most of us probably are surrounded by more clutter than we'd like.  Before we know it, the books, papers, clothing and other detritus of everyday life make it difficult to find things we're looking for.  In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Japanese organizational expert Marie Kondo describes her KonMari method of tidying.  Ms. Kondo has found, through many years of working with both business and personal clients, that straightening up your surroundings improves all areas of your life.  Once you are free from the burden of too many possessions, your entire outlook on life changes for the better.

Throughout the book, the author discusses her early life in Japan, when she was fascinated with lifestyle magazines and spent days organizing and re-organizing everything in her home (sometimes to the annoyance of her family).  What a stroke of luck that she was able to turn her personal obsession into a job!  Luckily for us, she has tried all the conventional methods of putting your possessions in order: clearing out one room at a time, doing a little bit every day, buying the latest and greatest organizers, etc.  However, none of that really worked in the long term, so she had to develop her own system.

Instead of doing a room or area of the house at a time, she found it's much easier to do a category (books, clothing, etc.).  Her one criterion for keeping an object is simple, "Does it bring you joy?"  If so, it can be kept.  If not, it gets tossed.

When I was describing the KonMari method of getting rid of anything "unjoyous" from your house to my husband, he was appalled.  "You mean you just throw out everything?  Think about what an environmentally bad idea that is!" he exclaimed.  But the focus of this book isn't recycling, donating or re-purposing: it's clearing out the clutter.  In fact, the author makes a good point about giving away unwanted possessions -- the giver will likely feel compelled to keep the object, since it was a gift (particularly if the recipient is a close friend or family member).  In that case, you haven't blessed the recipient, you've just passed your problem along to someone else.

I really liked some of the ideas in the book that were new to me.  For instance, the purpose of an object may be in the thrill it gave you when you bought it.  If you felt good when you initially acquired it, you shouldn't feel bad about getting rid of it even if it's never been worn/read/utilized -- it's served its purpose in making you happy.  She also says when you get rid of an item, you should thank it for serving its purpose.  She feels that items want to be useful to their owners and if an object is no longer serving a purpose, it will feel better in being discarded.  So you don't need to feel guilty about throwing things away. Your possessions want to help you by giving you a less-cluttered environment.  Some of her ideas, however, such as ripping pages with quotations you like out of a book and then discarding the book (an idea she later rejected) were a bit unsettling to me!

I enjoyed this book, although I think the subtitle, "The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing" is a bit misleading.  It sort of implies that Japanese people are just naturally more adept at organizing, the way the French are renowned for their cuisine or the Italians for their sense of fashion.  The fact that Ms. Kondo had to do so much trial and error (and that she is in demand as an organizer in Japan) shows that while she happens to be Japanese, her methods are entirely her own!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Banish those Downton Blues!

I know many people, like me, are anxiously awaiting the start of Downton Abbey, Season 5 on January 4.  To help ease the wait, PBS has a slew of great British programming lined up to tide you over until you can get your Downton fix!

On Sunday, December 21 at 8:00 pm, Tales from the Royal Bedchamber will be shown.  This series,

Host Dr. Lucy Worsley. Photo: Courtesy of
© Tiger Aspect Productions 2013
hosted by Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces (a job I'll be glad to take over, when she wants to retire!), will take a look behind the scenes at what actually went on in Royal State bedrooms.  Aside from being, as you would expect, much more grand than the bedrooms you or I occupy, for many years these seemingly private areas of the castle were actually central to the political future of the country.  Future monarchs were married in bedchambers and crowds would gather to observe royal births (must have been delightful for the mum-to-be!).  The royals eventually had enough of their private affairs being public spectacles and created private chambers, but the public nature of the royal bedchamber before this shift makes for a fascinating story.

The Great British Baking Show with (l to r) Sue Perkins,
Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood and
Mel Giedroyc. Credit: Love Productions
Just before the premier of the new season of Downton Abbey on January 4, the 10-week competition The Great British Bakeoff begins at 8:00 pm.  This show attempts to find Britain's best amateur baker with a series of tests to prepare such delicacies as cakes, pastries and breads (I can tell my low-carb diet is going to take a hit just watching this show!). Mary Berry (the "doyenne of baking") and Paul Hollywood judge the contestants' results while Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc host. Each episode will feature three challenges: the Signature Bake, the Technical Bake and the Showstopper Bake. I'm excited to see how the contestants respond to baking under pressure -- surely some of them will have disasters, which will make me feel better about my own less-than-stellar baking efforts.

Finally, to put you in the mood for some spring planting, The Queen's Garden airs at 10:00 pm on Sunday, January 11th (so start out at 8:00 with all the food and drink refreshment you need already assembled, cause you've got a great evening of viewing ahead of you!).  This program follows the Buckingham Palace Garden (in the middle of London) over the course of a year.  If, like me, you've yet to be invited to a Royal Garden Party, you'll enjoy this opportunity to explore the beautiful urban garden.  Plants and animals that make up the garden, as well as a lake and a 15-foot marble urn (previously owned by Napoleon) are shown in detail.

If you should happen to forget to mark you calendar to watch these wonderful programs, they will be available to stream the morning after broadcast from a variety of sources, including the PBS video site, PBS iPad and iPhone apps, and PBS digital platforms on ROKU, Apple TV and Xbox.  While winter is normally a bleak and depressing time of year, the wonderful "Best of Britain" programming that PBS is going to showcase in the upcoming weeks gives us something to look forward to!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

If you think this is bad, just wait til they get to middle school

I discovered the Australian writer Liane Moriarty when I downloaded a copy of "The Husband's Secret" as an audio book from the local library.  It was very interesting, so I was excited to read her new book Big Little Lies.  I wasn't disappointed!  This book is a real page-turner that kept me up way past my bedtime trying to find out what would happen next!

The story centers around 3 women.  Madeline is the mother of 3 children.  Her teenage daughter was from an earlier marriage, and she has two younger children with her current husband.  Her first husband left her when their daughter was just a baby, and now that he has remarried and has another child, he wants back in to the older daughter's life -- much to Madeline's disgust.

The second main character is Celeste.  She's impossibly beautiful and married to an absurdly wealthy man.  Unfortunately, he also lashes out violently toward her on a regular basis.  She's never told anyone about her situation, both because she's ashamed and because she sometimes fights back and feels that she's also to blame.  She and her husband are the parents of twin boys.

The final female lead is Jane, a single mother to young Ziggy.  Jane works from home as a bookkeeper, and moves around a lot.  She had a traumatic experience with Ziggy's father, and has spent the years since he was born restlessly moving from one place to the next, never settling down.

All of these characters come together when their children start kindergarten together.  The mothers at the kindergarten turn out to be cliquish, gossipy and vindictive.  Things start out on a bad foot when on the first day, one little girl is assaulted by a classmate.  Her mother demands to know who hurt her, and the little girl points out Ziggy as the culprit.  He denies it, but this taint on his character has terrible consequences.  A petition is started by the other parents to get him expelled from the school, and most of the other mothers shun Jane.

At the start of each chapter are hints that something terrible happens to someone.  Other parents are discussing the aftermath of some tragic event, and even police officers are quoted as saying they think people are hiding something.  A school trivia night, where all the mothers dress up as Audrey Hepburn and all the fathers dress up as Elvis, is looming, and that seems to be where the horrible thing happens . . . whatever it is!

As I was reading I was trying to guess which of the characters was going to meet a bad end, and who would be responsible for it.  Most of the characters seem to have something to hide, so there were numerous possibilities.  I enjoyed the book overall, but I did feel that the resolution to the whole bullying scenario was a bit rushed.  Otherwise, it was a great read!

Final verdict for Big Little Lies: Four Gherkins, for being an inside look at the cut-throat world of kindergarten politics

Monday, December 8, 2014

Learn to draw creepy cartoons

As someone who's hopeless at drawing, I was very interested in the book Monstrously Funny Cartoons.  The author, Christopher Hart, gives step-by-step instructions for drawing a variety of ghoulish figures including zombies, monsters, mummies and vampires.

The book is illustrated with black and white drawings showing how to construct your scary character from scratch.
Also, there is lots of advice and information for artists that I probably would never have considered.  Such things as how to vary the shapes of eyes to convey different emotions (stunned, puzzled, suspicious, etc.) and how placement of features can be used to vary expressions are explained and illustrated.  Classic traits for the various "monsters" are also included.  For instance, no self-respecting vampire would be seen without his trademark fangs, shadowy eyes, fussily-styled hair and "ears that suggest that his  mom had a fling with Mr. Spock."

In addition to covering the stock horror characters, the author also has advice on how to come up with your own characters and tweaks you can use to make the drawings unique.  It was also very interesting to see how an artist can convey such things as movement and action based on how the character is posed.

The final chapter of the book discusses how to place your characters in scenes.  While this might sound labor-intensive, examples show how easy it is to create a background in which a few elements will help to set the scene.  Overall, this would be a fantastic book for the budding cartoonist.  Even someone as artistically challenged as myself can be inspired to follow the easy directions to create ghouls and zombies of my own!
I think this book would be very useful and inspirational to a young person who was interested in drawing or doodling.  The author shows how to develop characters at each stage of the drawing, and the creepy subject matter is both entertaining and interesting.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Monstrously Funny Cartoons from Blogging For Books in exchange for this review

Monday, December 1, 2014

All this groaning and fist-clenching and agitated face-wiping

I was intrigued when I first heard about The Book of Strange New Things.  The author, Michel Faber, is well-known for his previous books, including The Crimson Petal and the White.  It truly didn't sound like anything I'd read before, and I was interested to see where the story would go.  Peter, a former homeless drug addict, has completely turned his life around.  He's married to the devoted Bea and is the minister of a church in England.  Everything is going well in their lives when he feels called by God for an important mission:  to travel to a distant planet to minister to the native beings who live there.  A large, somewhat shadowy company called USIC has established a permanent settlement on the planet, known as Oasis. Oasis is inhabited and a previous minister has converted many to Christianity.  However, this minister has disappeared, and the natives are asking for a replacement.  Bea is equally proud and alarmed by the fact that her husband is going to be going on a mission so far away.  Still, he's only planning to be away for around 6 months and so that doesn't seem so bad.

Once Peter arrives on the planet, he is struck by several things.  The planet is hot, and the concept of a "day" is somewhat misleading, since their hours of light and darkness are very different from what he's accustomed to.  The atmosphere is very unusual, with tendrils of air that move along the body and inside clothing.  The food is also very odd.  It's all made from a native plant called whiteflower, which can be prepared to taste *almost* like any familiar food you'd care to imagine, based on when it's harvested.  He's very nervous about meeting his flock. The pharmacist, a woman named Grainger, drives him out to the Oasan settlement, which is located quite a distance from the USIC base.

The people in the USIC settlement trade medicine to the Oasans for the various foods they've made from the harvested whiteflowers.  Peter is a bit shocked by his first glimpse of the "alien" Oasans. They are all clad in robes (each a different color so he is able to tell them apart), but their faces don't resemble human faces at all.  Still, the group he meets are "Jesus Lovers" who have been converted by the earlier pastor.  They are identified by numbers -- Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Twenty-Four, and so on.  Not everyone is converted, but the devoted Jesus Lovers are the only ones that Peter interacts with. He needn't have worried.  The Oasans are calm, kind and placid.  They immediately get to work building a church.  They call the Bible "The Book of Strange New Things" and already know many of the stories from it.  However, they have trouble pronouncing the letters T and S, so Peter sets about making small booklets paraphrasing sections of Biblical passages to avoid these troublesome letters.  He spends several weeks with the Oasans, then goes back to the USIC headquarters for a while.

Peter eventually begins to experience some changes.  He loses a lot of weight, suffers severe sunburns (although he doesn't seem to notice) and has problems remembering people and events from his life.  He communicates frequently with Bea via "the Shoot" a sort of email communication device.  The news from home isn't good.  There are many natural disasters, food shortages and general mayhem taking place on earth.  Peter feels both helpless and detached from the events, but he is worried about Bea and tries to reassure her.

As I was reading, I was trying to figure out where the book was going.  Were the Oasans as calm and "Jesus loving" as they appeared, or was there something more sinister about them?  What happened to the previous minister and another employee who disappeared?  What is USIC's real agenda?  Are there other animals on the planet other than the strange, small birdlike creatures they observe at times? Why are all the other employees so devoid of emotion?

Some of the questions are answered, but overall, there's no big conflict or resolution to the story.  I feel a bit disappointed, because I was expecting something major and shocking to happen, but this was really just Peter's story of his journey through life. He grew to realize what he valued and how he should live his life to reflect that.  I can't see Hollywood making it into a film without adding a few explosions or evil-doers, though!  I did enjoy the story, it just wasn't what I was expecting, so it was a bit of a letdown.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review