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The Frugalista Files 2

A review of The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life by Natalie P. McNeal.

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Help Me

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore, with John Hanc (Harlequin, $16.95, 272 pages)

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 304 pages)

Often the focus of self-help books is the reader’s feelings of discomfort, inadequacy or anger.   That said, the two books reviewed here are pragmatic and filled with specific science-based ideas formulated by well-respected professionals in their respective fields.

The first book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time, was written by the team of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, a certified wellness coach and cofounder of Harvard’s Institute of Coaching with assistance from John Hanc, an associate professor of journalism and communications at the New York Institute of Technology.   The premise of Organize Your Mind is that daily stress is produced by too much to do and this overload, in turn, produces a sense of helplessness.   The book looks at how your conscious actions can bring about a sense of mastery and control to daily life as well as assist in long-range planning.

Each area discussed is introduced by Dr. Hammerness in what he calls “The Rules of Order.”   Each of the rules is about brain functioning and how it relates to ones’ actions and feelings.   The six rules are followed by pragmatic action steps outlined by Coach Margaret.   Accompanying each rule are highlighted sidebars filled with explanations and contextual comments that enhance the reader’s experience.   Dr. Hammerness includes suggestions for readers whose issues extend beyond the scope of the book.   He takes a kindly attitude and suggests that there are situations where professional help beyond that offered in the book is indicated.

The chapters and rules are cumulative which allows the reader to follow along and build skills.   The tone of the authors’ writing is non-judgmental, realistic and yet not a buddy-buddy one.   There are really good puns scattered in the text.   Alas, this reviewer is not able to quote any of them as an advance uncorrected proof was provided by the publisher.

Highly recommended.

The second book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World was written by Sam Sommers, a remarkably young-looking psychology professor at Tufts University.   Sommers is also an expert witness who is called upon to testify as to whether actions and statements are racially motivated or merely meaningful descriptors that may be admitted as evidence in court proceedings.

This book is an excellent complement to Organize Your Mind that can be best appreciated if read as a follow-up in the reader’s self-improvement strategy.   Sommers makes good use of scientific findings to support his conclusions.   However, his assertion is that introspection will not bring someone to discover the means to the life they wish to have.   Rather, his focus is on the ways that environmental influences assert significant power over the decisions people make and the actions they take every day.   Watchfulness and awareness of the context (location, group or ethnic background) in which one finds one’s self can lead to a significantly different outcome, such as summoning police assistance, questioning odd behavior or just realizing that people mindlessly parrot what they think is true.   An excellent parallel can be made with reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, particularly Tipping Point.   Several of the studies he cites are common to both books.

The chapter structure of Situations Matter follows that of a survey book.   Sommers does tie back to his beginning hypothesis that we see the world as a “what you see is what you get” sort of place.   (The computer shorthand is WYSIWYG.)   He also makes good use of examples from his university classroom exercises.   The tone of the book is friendly and it reads like a transcript from the psychology class you wish you’d taken.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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The River

Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (Harlequin)

Review by Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees: A Novel.

Few of us are well-versed in what it takes to save our own lives.   Carrie Host is.

Between Me and the River is a heartbreaking, glorious, and poetic rendering that spans several years of a young woman’s life during which her body is ravaged by a slow-growing but deadly form of cancer.   It is also the story of a woman saved by her inner resources, and the buoying love of her husband and three children.   In Between Me and the River, Host intimately describes her battles and triumphs in nail-biting detail.   While difficult to read at times, Host’s cut to the quick candor keeps the reader engaged as she takes us on a journey into the labyrinth of the medical system, as she rebuilds her body, brick by metaphorical brick, only to have it ravaged again.  

Her lyrical descriptions provide a reprieve from the harsh realities of a life forever on the “river” – a metaphor that she uses for her cancer.   At once poet and realist, Host’s struggle to make peace with her disease provides a compelling narrative that propels the reader to turn the book’s pages with care, hanging on to Host’s voice as though it’s a life raft through the unknown rapid waters she so bravely navigates, even when it appears she will drown.   Yet, through it all, one has the feeling she’s got her eyes set on the horizon, far enough in the distance to see herself across the river.

Sometimes the river is torrid.   Sometimes it stops moving completely.   Emboldened with a fighting spirit even as her 5’7′ body drops from a healthy 135 to a haunting 97 pounds, rendering her unable to hold her head up let alone hold a new baby, the future looks bleak.   But treatment after treatment, she fights and holds on, wrestling with her own spirituality and drawing epiphanies about herself and her relationships – the sort that come from the deepest depths of despair – that bless her with an uncommon peace that only those who have visited death’s door can intimately understand.

Host navigates the river as she enters into complicated dialogues with friends, her children, and her husband, all of whom, at times, she believes she may never see again.   She describes the desperation and frustration she feels when hiring someone to care for her children, to do the things she is supposed to be doing as she feels herself falling into a shadow of her former self when cancer seems to be winning.  

This is a story that shakes the reader to the core, one not for the faint of heart, but certainly a worthy one.   Host, caught in the middle of a glorious life, could have been any one of us…  yet, she is no longer like us.   She is different, as only a woman can be when she has touched death’s door and returned with as many scars as gifts.  

This book teaches us powerful lessons about love, letting go, and forgiveness, about the quest for health and the fight to survive, about savoring every small moment with the same enthusiasm and appreciation as all the grand moments put together.   In the end, it is Host’s determination and wisdom that bring her back fighting.   Hers is a voice not easily forgotten, one that makes a reader wish her many more healthy years, for surely she has many more gifts to share with us.

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