Book reviews

I review books for the best newspaper in southern New Hampshire… well, actually, all of New Hampshire ….  The Hippo.  If you want to know why it’s called The Hippo, go here.  menckencard 008

Meanwhile, here’s what I’m reading this week.

PS — I am not an Amazon affiliate.  Any links there are for your convenience, not my gain.

You check out past  reviews in The Hippo’s archives, but here’s one of my recent favorites.

Outer Order, Inner Calm, by Gretchen Rubin  (Harmony, 215 pages)

Gretchen Rubin is a happiness expert, a real one, not someone who cast about for a way to become famous, self-published a book and began billing herself as an expert without any convincing credentials.

Rubin became a happiness expert circuitously, after having earned a law degree from Yale and deciding she didn’t really be a lawyer. She embarked on a year-long effort to be happier, resulting in the 2009 book “The Happiness Project,” which sold well and was a solid addition to the “I spent a year doing this and look how great my life is now” genre.  

The book was pleasantly conversational and reasonably footnoted. It gave rise to more books, including “Happier at Home” and “Better than Before” and gave Rubin an impressive social media following. She also has a podcast (“Happier with Gretchen Rubin”) that has been downloaded more than 70 million times.

There is a troubling sign, however, that Rubin is running out of things to say.  It is her latest, Outer Order, Inner Calm, which is a shocking waste of natural resources, especially in the month in which we’re supposed to honor the Earth.  Devoid of research and personality, the book is the sort that usually arrives in bookstores in November, hastily assembled for exasperated shoppers and infested with platitudes. Maybe the purpose was similar; Mother’s Day looms.

Do not inflict this book on your mother.

The best thing that can be said about it is that it is better than Margareta Magnusson’s  atrocious “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” of 2018, but it is worse than Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which started the clean-’til-you’re-happy craze in 2014.

And while clearly borrowing the idea, much like Robin Hood borrowed from the rich, Rubin waits until the waning pages of her book to acknowledge Kondo, and then insults her by sniffing at Kondo’s now-famous question (to ask when we’re deciding whether to keep something, “Does this spark joy?”

rubin Rubin does not find this question “particularly helpful.” 

“For me, focusing on ‘energy’ rather than ‘joy’ provides more clarity,” she says, suggesting that when people should ask themselves “Does this energize me?”

That’s the sort of knock-off found on the side streets of New York. But the book’s main problem is not that it echoes Kondo, but that it does so without adding anything new to the conversation, a disappointment since Rubin, with her two Yale degrees, could do so much better. She does hit the occasional single with phrases like “visual noise” (one of her descriptions for clutter) and “deep clutter,” which she describes as clutter that is “well organized and put away neatly” but still qualifies as clutter because it’s not “used, needed, or loved.”

I also liked her line, “If you need to buy things to store things, perhaps you have too many things.”  Also, on what may be the most important page of the book, she gives us all permission to get finally let go of the woolen guilt in our lives. “Get rid of that single mitten,” she says. (You’ll find its mate the day after the trash is collected, but that’s another story.)

But you’ll have to sift through a pile of platitudes to find any specks of gold here, and there are paragraphs that are actually insulting, as when she suggests we can improve our lives by changing the kitty litter and using a coat rack or closet to hang our coats. We should  also toss unnecessary papers, clear clutter when we can’t sleep at night and not buy souvenirs.

There’s also some advice here that simply bewilders.  “Keep pens, a notepad, Scotch tape, and a pair of scissors in every room. Life is much easier when you have the tools you need right within reach.”

Scissors, I get.  Pens and a notepad, too.  But I’m still scratching my head over what I would do with Scotch tape in a bathroom.

Most frustrating of all is Rubin’s repeated assurances that her advice is not one-size-fits-all. Rather than bolding stating the promise of her title — outer order produces inner calm — she qualifies it meekly throughout the book.  “For most of us, outer order contributes to inner calm.”  (Italics are mine.) For most of us, these suggestions will work.

And midway through the book that is supposed to convince us clutter is making us crazy, she says, in effect, “or not.”  Some people are unaffected by clutter, she says. “If you don’t care, don’t bother.”  (Italics are hers.)

A fresh, smart manifesto that motivates the nation to clean, a literal call to order,  would be great to read in the first few weeks of spring. Disappointingly, this is not it. Don’t bother.