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All Self-Help Coverage

 Everything, Beautiful

In a world unspeakably darkened by crisis, it might seem trifling to even think about appreciating, cultivating or devoting our attention to beauty. Focusing on beauty might even read as an act of oblivious privilege. But perhaps a fuller contemplation of what beauty is, can be and has been, and what it can mean in our everyday lives, is in fact one step toward repairing massive-scale damage. Writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders believes it is. In Everything, Beautiful, she envisions learning to see beauty as a curative, even redemptive process, “like putting a delicate, very broken vase back together.” No matter how broken our world, it is nevertheless full of “tiny, beautiful things,” she writes. “Some are so invisible or silent that you may never see or understand them, but they are there.” Through text, illustration and guided prompts, Sanders upends and expands our notions of beauty and urges us to notice the ingredients for beauty that are all around us, such as “light, slowness, and the kind of air temperatures that feel like honey.”

Lost Places

I live in a boomtown where every old structure seems to either meet the wrecking ball or get a second life via adaptive reuse. Paging through the images in Lost Places, I'm swept into another world, one where the vestiges of America's past are left, silent and uninhabited, to be transformed by weather and time. Heribert Niehues' photographs of abandoned cars, houses, gas stations and other structures tell a story about our country's past. They are also suffused with mystery: What lives did these places once contain? Who last passed through these doors? Scenes of decaying diner interiors are among the spookiest, with guests' checks, condiment containers and fry baskets left behind. Car buffs will enjoy Niehues' many images of rusted-out, early- to mid-20th-century models. Many of the abandoned edifices captured here fell victim to the interstate system when it rerouted travel in the 1950s and '60; one wonders what of our present might be left behind a century from now, as climate change remaps the landscape.

Forever Beirut

Forever Beirut, a cookbook with accompanying essays and stunning photographs, was conceptualized by Barbara Abdeni Massaad as a way to help her beloved home country in the aftermath of a terrible 2020 explosion at the port of Beirut. In response to disaster and economic collapse, the book passionately preserves the treasures of Beirut's culinary heritage, with recipes for favorites such as kibbeh, a dish of ground lamb, beef or vegetables kneaded together with bulgur; man'oushe, a traditional flatbread; mezze, small dishes served together such as chickpeas and yogurt; and semolina cake. This is the stuff of my culinary dreams: food that is aromatically spiced, uncomplicated and yet bursting with flavor, served to the reader within a deep, loving sociocultural context.

Look a little closer, and you’ll find beauty lurking in unexpected places. The three books in this month’s lifestyles column will help you spot it.

★ Edible Plants

In Edible Plants, Jimmy W. Fike takes native North American plant specimens—such as dandelion, rocket, sassafras, spicebush and pawpaw—out of their natural surroundings and meticulously digitally photographs them against black backdrops. In each image, the stark contrast makes visible the magical potency and potential of these common living things, many of which are often dismissed as weeds. Fike colorizes the edible portions of each plant, while the inedible parts are kept a delicate, even eerie gray. These striking photographs seek to inform, similar to the horticultural photography and illustrations of eras past, perhaps making foragers of us all. But what’s more, they are painstakingly beautiful. This book would make an impressive gift for the naturalist in your life.

Cats & Books

How can we not give a shoutout to Cats & Books, a slim-and-trim, adorable celebration of felines sprawled amid TBR piles and perched on bookshelves? This is a hashtag-to-print project: The photos are crowdsourced from Instagram users worldwide who tagged their photos #CatsandBooks. Now compiled in print, short captions give glimpses of these kitties’ personalities. For example, George from Germany “is a gentle soul and the best office buddy one could ask for.” (Sweet George is shown with a paw flung possessively over a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.) Any person who loves cats and also loves books obviously needs to own this small treasure.

Things You Can Do

Last night at dinner, my daughter complained about the absence of meat in her tacos, which led to a discussion of sustainable eating. She didn’t grasp the connection between a carnivorous diet and climate change, so I brought to the table Things You Can Do and read from Chapter 3, “A Climate-Friendly Diet.” I daresay I got through to her, and I imagine New York Times journalist Eduardo Garcia’s compact, well-sourced guide to fighting climate change and reducing waste will continue to help us play our small but mighty part. Grounded in science, this approachable book offers a 360-degree view of the causes and effects of a warming planet, from reliance on coal to the excesses of modern life, including the overuse of air conditioning, increased meat consumption, car culture and much more. I for one am glad to have this resource, rounded out by beautiful watercolor and gouache illustrations by Sara Boccaccini Meadows, at my fingertips for family meals and beyond.

The natural world and all of its delicate delights take center stage in this month’s roundup of the best and most beautiful lifestyles books.

The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four authors offer hidden paths toward healing.

Bittersweet

Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy.

Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by author Susan Cain.

Grief Is Love

Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss. When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly.

Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.

The Other Side of Yet

Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness. Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.”

In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.

Take What You Need

Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant.

Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess what they need to persevere.

Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going.

Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling from loss.

“The making of many books is without limit,” says the book of Ecclesiastes, and that weary reaction seems appropriate when considering yet another offering on personal finance. But Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People: Getting a Grip on Your Finances is a refreshingly original contribution to this crowded field, and one her fellow millennials will find especially valuable as they contemplate the decades of decisions that will shape their financial futures.

Founder of the Hell Yeah Group, a financial firm that emphasizes service to creatives, de Leon touches all the traditional bases, from how to handle debt to saving and investing for retirement. Much of this advice (e.g., automate savings and max out contributions to a retirement account when there’s an employer match) doesn’t stray far from conventional paths. But as she leads readers on the perilous ascent of what she calls the “Pyramid of Financial Awesomeness,” several aspects of her approach stand out.

Acknowledging that we are all “weird about money,” de Leon offers an empathetic yet concrete perspective on overcoming the psychological barriers that prevent many people from dealing effectively with financial decision-making. And while she’s not averse to discipline, she disdains some of the popular emphasis on austerity (think David Bach’s The Latte Factor). Rejecting a worldview that chooses “scarcity over abundance,” she’s intent on “helping people connect to their financial power,” encouraging them to think at least as hard about generating more income as they do about saving in order to balance what she calls the “personal finance equation.”

De Leon delivers her message in a breezy, conversational style, emphasizing key points with an assortment of clever cartoons. At the same time, she is eminently practical, insisting on the need to set aside 30 to 60 minutes of “weekly finance time” as a first step toward systematically establishing sound money habits. Most notably, de Leon includes some tips—including journaling as a means of “unearthing your beliefs about money” and using mindfulness meditation to develop the muscle of delayed gratification—not likely to be found in other books of this genre. Above all, she’s an engagingly self-deprecating storyteller, illustrating her advice with tales of some of her own money missteps and their hard-earned lessons.

Dealing with money is one of life’s inescapable realities, and for most people there will always be some amount of pain associated with it. Having a friendly guide like Finance for the People can help the journey become both more bearable and more profitable.

Paco de Leon’s Finance for the People is a refreshingly original contribution to this crowded field of personal finance books.

Fun “shouldn’t be an afterthought,” writes popular science author Catherine Price. “It should be our guiding star.” How’s that for good news?

After writing How to Break Up With Your Phone and following her own book’s advice, Price discovered that she had more free time, but she experienced a moment of crisis when she couldn’t figure out what to do with that freedom. Eventually she learned how to fill those moments with newfound fun and joy, a process that she describes in The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again. It’s a natural sequel to her previous book, as well as a similarly satisfying—and transformational—read.

Catherine Price shares the ways her own life was transformed by learning to prioritize fun.

This naturally fun and funny writer dug her dusty guitar out of the closet and became part of an enriching musical community that has changed her life. Meanwhile, Price also began researching the subject of fun, sorting out the difference between what she calls Fake Fun (such as watching TV for hours at a time or endlessly scrolling through social media) and True Fun, which leaves people feeling “nourished and refreshed.” After devouring books on the subject and querying hundreds of people about how they experience fun, she came up with her own definition of True Fun as a “confluence of playfulness, connection, and flow.” It’s a definition that holds up well throughout her discussions, allowing readers many opportunities to see how their own activities measure up.

The Power of Fun includes a toolkit for those whose leisure lives need a boost, including a Fun Audit and practical suggestions for creating your own Fun Squad; but even those whose lives are already highly entertaining will come to view and value their pastimes in a new light. Price documents her own journey of fun failures, such as improv comedy and charades, and successes, such as playing light-up badminton at night with her husband, an absurdly humorous aqua aerobics lesson in Latvia and learning to row crew at age 40, which resulted in a dramatic capsize in Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River. Price reminds readers to cherish moments of fun both large and small—even “microdoses,” such as a quick smile or an unexpected exchange with a stranger—and to make time for fun “booster shots” like vacations or annual gatherings “that fill up your fun tank and replenish your energy for a longer period of time.”

Price is a trustworthy guide with a personable voice that stands out on each page. The Power of Fun reads like a heaping serving of a tasty yet healthy snack. You’ll enjoy every bite and feel energized afterward.

The Power of Fun provides instructions for filling your life with the kind of playful, connected fun that leaves you feeling nourished and refreshed.

When life handed the world lemons in the form of a global pandemic, Catherine Price found a way to make lemonade. She began researching and writing a book that would help readers define, prioritize and add more fun to their lives. For anyone hoping to make 2022 a banner year, The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again provides the perfect jump-start. Instead of trying to corral the willpower and restraint that’s key to so many self-improvement plans, Price prioritizes fun, a strategy she compares to “going on a diet that requires you to eat more foods that you love.”

“We go into this self-restriction phase after the indulgence of the holidays,” Price says, speaking by phone from her Philadelphia home. “But you can make positive change in your life and have fun. In January, we feel like we have to make up for anything we did in December, instead of realizing that this is a wonderful opportunity to set a good tone for the new year by doing things that make us happier.”

Price notes that millions of people devote time and therapy to reducing stress and anxiety, but most of us contemplate fun only as an afterthought. “I've drunk my own Kool-Aid,” Price admits, her voice brimming with enthusiasm. “Really, fun is one of the most important things in life, and the more fun we have and the more we prioritize fun, the happier and healthier we will be.” As she writes in The Power of Fun, “It should be our guiding star.”

Read our starred review of ‘The Power of Fun.’

Price’s latest book is a natural sequel to her 2018 book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, which she wrote after realizing that she was spending hours mindlessly scrolling on her smartphone while ignoring her infant daughter. By limiting her screen time, Price created more free time—but then she didn’t know what she actually wanted to do with that time.   

For Price, her most vivid experiences of fun occurred while learning to play the guitar. Once she realized that, one thing led to another: She formed a small band, began performing at open mic nights, started drum lessons and made new friends—activities she particularly relished because her work as a freelance writer is so solitary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Price and her musical friends had numerous outside jam sessions, sometimes in bone-chilling weather. “We did this for the entire winter,” she says, reminiscing about a keyboard that is probably still covered in campfire ashes. “The fact that all of us committed to this source of fun was so meaningful. We went beyond playmates and became friends. And it all came from having a couple other people in my life who also prioritized fun.”

For The Power of Fun, Price surveyed numerous people in detail about their own fun experiences and how they felt during those moments. She calls her writing “science-backed self-help,” explaining, “I don’t like the sort of self-help that’s just platitudes. I really want there to be some evidence. I want to know exactly why I’m doing something.” However, as she dug into the material, she was shocked to discover that there wasn’t even an agreed-upon definition of fun, nor was there much research on the subject.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to set a good tone for the new year by doing things that make us happier.”

Price eventually decided to label passive entertainment, like watching TV for hours at a time, as Fake Fun and to create her own definition for True Fun—moments of what she calls “playful, connected flow” in which someone connects with other people in a meaningful way and becomes so fully engrossed in the moment that they lose track of time. There’s a lot of middle ground between these two poles, Price notes, full of enjoyable, worthwhile pastimes that simply don’t reach peak fun. Luckily, The Power of Fun includes a Fun Audit, which Price developed to help readers identify the activities most likely to spark inner joy.

Price stresses that it’s equally important for each person to recognize activities that aren’t personally fun. For instance, Price knows that she doesn’t like charades or performing improv comedy, and that while she enjoys being part of musical groups, she’s not a solo performer. “If you’ve tried something a number of times and it never generates fun for you, then maybe it’s OK to move on to the next thing,” she says. “By saying no to that, you might open up a new opportunity that’s actually fun.”

Speaking of things that aren’t personally fun—Price faced multiple challenges as she wrote about this joyful magic ingredient “during an objectively not-fun period of history.” One moment was especially memorable, when she found herself alone for several days in the midst of the pandemic. “Imagine, if you will,” she writes in the book, “me slouched in front of my laptop with about fifteen browser windows open, each containing a different research paper about the horrible health effects of loneliness and isolation, as I sat on the couch, isolated and alone.”

If you’ve resolved to get in touch with your feelings this year, these books will help you increase your EQ.

“At the same time,” Price says, “the project had a powerfully positive effect on my own life. It allowed me to weather a difficult time with my sanity intact—and in fact, with my cheerfulness intact. It gave me something positive to focus on.”

At the start of the 2020 lockdown, Price, her husband and their young daughter headed to Price’s childhood home in New Jersey, where her parents could help with child care. “It was interesting to see my daughter playing in some of the very same places that I had played as a kid. But it was also interesting to reflect on what play means as an adult,” Price says. “Having a 5-year-old is very useful for reminding yourself that there are opportunities for playfulness and connection and flow around us all the time. We just need to learn to tune into them.”

This change of focus even improved Price’s marriage. “[My husband and I] were very playful people to begin with,” she says, “but it’s been really useful for us to reframe our own experience through the lens of fun and treat it as a priority, both as a couple and individually.”

“If you’re having fun with people . . . you’re embracing your shared humanity.”

In addition to improving interpersonal relationships, Price believes this process could even heal some of the nation’s divides. “Fun brings people together,” she says. “If you’re having fun with people, you’re not yelling at them, you’re not emphasizing your political differences. You’re embracing your shared humanity.”

Price became a science writer somewhat by accident. In high school, she believed science classes were boring, hard and irrelevant. That feeling changed at age 22, when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “That moment of having to take control of my own blood sugar for the rest of my life, lest I suffer devastating consequences, like blindness or amputation or stroke or kidney failure, was a big turning point,” she recalls.

An added influence was Michael Pollan, Price’s mentor at the University of California, Berkeley, journalism program, who helped her discover that she likes “writing about health and science in a quirky, personal, fun way.” For one assignment, Price wrote about being diagnosed with diabetes, which led to the New York Times publishing her essay “Thinking About Diabetes With Every Bite” in 2009. Eventually, she even wrote a book about nutrition called Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food.

“Writing this book made me tune into what made me want to become a writer to begin with.”

For years Price has contemplated writing a book about hormones, a subject that fascinates her, but now she thinks she’ll choose a different topic for her next project. “I want to really lean into this fun thing,” she says. “I personally feel that my books come most alive whenever I’m telling a personal anecdote, and I love writing that way. Writing this book made me tune into what made me want to become a writer to begin with.”

Price hopes The Power of Fun will likewise help readers gather with friends and “spend January or February staging their own kind of ‘funterventions.’” Once you start noticing tiny, everyday moments, she says, “it brightens up your life, and, in turn, that buoyancy can help energize you so that you can start to seek out even bigger moments of playful, connected flow. I see it as a very self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing cycle with innumerable positive effects.”

These lessons have led to a very different life, Price explains. “Realizing what I really want to prioritize as fun has been truly life-changing. And I’m so excited to share that message with the world.”

Author photo by Colin Lenton

Popular science writer Catherine Price says to stop scrolling, put down your phone and play.

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