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Book Reviews

Work Less, Live More: A Woman’s Guide

by Paula Brook

When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore: Women, Work and Identity

by Elizabeth Perle McKenna

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy

by Sarah Ban Breathnach

Simple Pleasures: Soothing Suggestions & Small Comforts for Living Well Year Round, Robert Taylor

by Susannah Seton and David Greer

Frugal Luxuries: Simple Pleasures to Enhance Your Life and Comfort Your Soul

by Tracey McBride

In the 1960s and 70s, young, middle-class North Americans got the message loud and clear: follow your hearts, do whatever you want, drop out, be happy. The children of post-war boom years, they were well educated, inclined to question their society’s values. Whether they became commune-dwellers or plastic surgeons, the idea that the Good Life was their birthright was solidly entrenched.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Age of Aquarius. There were bills to pay, careers to build, things to buy. Back-to-the-landers gradually found themselves contributing to the gross national product. Women who devoted themselves to their careers started having children “before it was too late.” As they aged, a whole generation discovered they were swirling in a whirlpool of divorce, step-families, second families, aging parents. Not to mention the threats and realities of downsizing, workaholism, heavy personal debt, and the long hours attendant to career survival.

Today, many baby boomers find their lives speeding up rather than slowing down as they hit their “golden years.” As author Elizabeth Perle McKenna writes, “The quality of my life was lessening at the same time that quality was becoming more important.” The new seekers of the good life offer a huge potential market for advice for those who want to give up the rat race, or – for those who are involuntarily disqualified – on how to cope beautifully.

Women’s lives are the focus of many of the books now being published. British Columbia writer Paula Brook is typical of the Superwoman archetype. She was the high-profile editor of Western Living magazine and a busy wife and mother until she quit in 1995 to find a better, that is, a saner, way of life. Her new book, Work Less, Live More, is also typical of many of the books available. In her infectious personal style, Brook examines the social trends and personal pressures in the lives of women who are too exhausted to think. Ironically, the book occasionally suffers from trying to be all things to all people and further exhausts the reader with too many things to think about. Fortunately, frequent chapter breaks and narrative variety help alleviate some of this stress.

When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore: Women, Work and Identity lacks Brook’s Canadian focus, but offers a simpler philosophical approach for women who are doing some soul-searching about their futures. Written by Elizabeth Perle McKenna, a book publisher and a mother who also quit her frenzied executive life to find a better way, this book focuses exclusively on the way women’s identities are shaped by their white-collar jobs. In her intelligently distilled argument that such work environments continue to be hostile to women’s lives outside the office, McKenna says that many women perpetuate the system by being the “good girls” they have been conditioned to be. Here, she offers a valuable blueprint for change, whether it is carried out within or without the organization.

According to the simplicity gurus, Thoreau and Emerson are in, the Puritan work ethic is out. Buddhism (living mindfully), feng shui, aromatherapy, crafts, gardening, budgeting, organizing, walking, second-hand shopping, cooking, dreams, wishes, and bubble baths are all heartily recommended. Martha Stewart, the Joneses, second cars, consumerism, credit cards, and television are exposed as vapid tricksters that wreak havoc on budgets and self-
esteem. This is the thrust of guides from Simple Abundance to The Joy of Not Working, differentiated only by authorial tone and organizational structure.

Best-selling author and Oprah darling Sarah Ban Breathnach – author of Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy – sets the high-water mark. Her beautifully bound collection of short daily essays inspires the reader to travel with her on a journey to become “curator of your own contentment.” Ban Breathnach offers six principles for finding one’s “authentic self” with a gentle honesty that prevents most of the essays from becoming too New Age or syrupy. Even the most hard-nosed, cynical types might find themselves occasionally drawn in by some of her principles.

But for those who don’t want to spend an entire year with Sarah, similar help may be found in Simple Pleasures: Soothing Suggestions & Small Comforts for Living Well Year Round. This four-season guide offers many of the same quotes and tips as Simple Abundance (indeed, so much so that it seems designed to cash in on Ban Breathnach’s success), but it includes a larger selection of practical tips such as recipes and craft instructions interspersed with many different people’s favourite ways to simplify. Despite the varied contributors, however, Simple Pleasures is not as culturally inclusive as Simple Abundance and its main appeal will be to WASP readers.

Frugal Luxuries: Simple Pleasures to Enhance Your Life and Comfort Your Soul is drop-dead practical, written with a quietly dignified air of desperation. Author Tracey McBride is the publisher of the newsletter Frugal Times, launched when her husband was laid off. Because she is working from a position of enforced frugality, rather than chosen simplicity, McBride is less poetic about second-hand shopping and other tricks of living well on slender means. There is an underlying sense that to do it well is a matter of pride, but that homemade or second-hand is sometimes second best. But for readers who want to know how to pull off a child’s birthday party, including goodie bags, for under $20, McBride proves a spirited and unrivalled leader.

Charles Long is Tracey McBride’s more macho Canadian counterpart. An Ontario writer and teacher on “alternative lifestyles and country living,” he revised his book How to Survive Without a Salary: Learning to Live the Conserver Lifestyle last year to take new trends into account. Long is more concerned with economic theory than birthday parties, and his luxury of choice is a glass of homemade wine in a hammock rather than a candlelit bubble bath. He won’t tell readers how to fashionably accessorize on a limited budget, but includes excellent details on building cheap chicken coops and purchasing goods at auction. Long may seem a bit wacky to some, but he makes a lot of sense and writes with an appealing post-hippie charm.

Edmonton writer Ernie J. Zelinsky, judging by the numerous testimonials included in the third edition of his guide The Joy of Not Working, is very popular with his readers. Translated internationally, he scoffs at the poor suckers he left behind when he decided to live “the life of Riley” at age 29, and advocates making a career of leisure. His well-made points about developing personal interests and his exercises for building enjoyable recreational time into one’s schedule are useful for all readers, employed or not. Unfortunately his swaggering posture and sometimes uninformed theories (that the Protestant work ethic was a product of the Industrial Revolution, for example) may put some readers off.

Finally, as one of the most fraught and commercial seasons for many Canadians draws near – Christmas – there is succour from the 24-year-old Christian organization, Alternatives for Simple Living. A leader in the simple-living movement, this Iowa-based organization offers a two-part collection of their best ideas for celebrating a spiritually meaningful Christmas in Simplify & Celebrate. Even those who don’t wish to follow the Bible lessons of the second part will find inspiration in the ideas for cutting materialism at Christmas time and instead enjoying the spirit of the season.