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Guides for Better Living From Around the World

Nishant Choksi

Right now, I’m a bit embarrassed to be an American. Not usually. But now. If I see a tourist on the street looking lost, it’s all I can do not to blurt, “I’m sorry about what our president said today and will say tomorrow,” along with directions to the No. 6 train.

I must have a lot of company. How else to explain the staggering pile of self-help books where Americans are offered the path to a better life via the rituals and outlook of other countries? Last year there were lessons in happiness and well-being, via hygge from Denmark. And this year? Japan is teaching us to seize the day (humbly). Sweden is showing us how to find balance and simplify our lives. And France is showing us, well, everything else. Naturellement. Just because they invented Camembert and guilt-free sex, they think they’re soooo perfect.

A FRENCHWOMAN’S GUIDE TO SEX AFTER SIXTY, by the psychotherapist Marie de Hennezel, immediately catches your attention because the cover shows a woman of a certain age glancing coquettishly over the bedsheets. But that age isn’t 40. It’s perhaps 75. So this isn’t the American version of old; it’s the French version, which is to say: old. And that’s what makes this volume uniquely French: It’s deeply un-American in its realism. Aches and pains, medications that reduce libido, a diminution of hormones that mean friction is tougher on our naughty bits and of course the occasional urge to cover all the mirrors in the house: Aging ain’t pretty, Hennezel admits. Yet for many of us, Eros lives, and Eros wants its due. What’s called for, then, is a revolution in the way we look at sexuality: a de-emphasis on orgasms in favor of kissing and caressing, more solo play to connect with our erotic selves and “making affection” as an alternative to making love. Feeling good through exercise and a healthy diet is paramount; looking younger through plastic surgery is mentioned not at all. Reading the stories of septuagenarians and octogenarians who are finding love or intimacy or sometimes just sex, one is reminded that the very French concept of joie de vivre — a sense of joy that comes from curiosity and playfulness, from looking outward instead of inward — is its own form of Botox.

This joie is very much at the heart of Jamie Cat Callan’s lively PARISIAN CHARM SCHOOL: French Secrets for Cultivating Love, Joy and That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi. Maybe “Parisian Charm School” seems so thorough because Callan, who has written several previous books on various aspects of French life, is an American; she approaches her subject with anthropological rigor. Here that subject is French charm, which is some combination of intellectual curiosity, spontaneity, style and a soupçon of reserve. Charm, she points out, can’t be Googled; it must be cultivated. Yet, at its heart, it’s a tangle of contradictions. As a fashion consultant Callan interviewed put it, “Never be too feminine, too girlie. Never be too complicated. Too obvious. Never look like you’re trying. But you must try!” Being French seems kind of exhausting. Still, we clumsy Americans can worship at this shrine and maybe pick up a few tricks. Who, after all, doesn’t want to be like the woman in this line Callan quotes from Colette: “When she raises her eyelids, it’s as if she were taking off all her clothes.”

Perhaps Sweden was a little jealous of all the lifestyle-giving attention its Danish neighbor received, so this year brings us Linnea Dunne’s LAGOM: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living. Loosely translated, lagom means “not too little, not too much, but just enough,” making Sweden the Goldilocks of nations, one that earned an article on the website of the World Economic Forum called “Why Sweden Beats Other Countries at Just About Everything.” The reason, it seems, is that Sweden makes the concept of “the greater good” practically into a religion. You start with free education and universal health care and end with great pastry (and the regular coffee breaks — fika — to enjoy it). Fairness and moderation are basic cultural values: “Lagom is accepting an invitation to spend the weekend at a friend’s house, but bringing your own bedsheets because it’s fair to share the burden of laundry. … It’s wearing bright-red lipstick, but leaving the rest of your makeup perfectly understated.” There’s a reason Gianni Versace founded his luxury fashion empire in Italy and H & M was born in Sweden: “There’s this inherent celebrating of frugality in Sweden. We like affordable clothes because it’s a bit vulgar to splash out.”

If anything sums up the gestalt of this book — and Sweden — it’s this: Swedes are rated among the world’s top 10 happiest people, but not the happiest. That would be excessive. The aim isn’t ecstasy but “sustainable happiness,” the sort of equilibrium that’s achieved through small moments of calm and bliss in your everyday routine. So, to live the lagom way, invite your friends round for fika, spend time in nature, give away items that don’t add to your pleasure in life — and, most important, help a neighbor.

The primacy of the common good extends to everything in Sweden, including shuffling off this mortal coil. Reading THE GENTLE ART OF SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter, I couldn’t help thinking of my own parents, who were mild hoarders. When they were in their 80s and I meekly suggested that maybe they should get their home in order, my father’s response was: “Why? Soon it’ll be your problem.”

Margareta Magnusson is writing for people with families like mine — and maybe yours. Americans are just too much, she gently suggests. Swedes embrace consideration and minimalism, and the practice of “death cleaning” (which can start in your 30s — why wait?) embodies those values. “Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice — instead of awful,” she says, and proceeds to do just that in this short, practical guide to getting rid of stuff. You categorize, normally going from large objects to small; you give things away or sell them, particularly if you have a family you know is going to bicker. And you never, ever start with photos or other items of great sentiment because you’re likely to get stuck. And oh, how right Magnusson is. After my parents passed away, my own death cleaning consisted of looking at old photos, then immediately giving up — taking everything they owned and putting it into a massive storage unit that has sucked up money for seven years. I may have to reread her book.

In Japanese, iki means “to live” and gai means “reason” — in other words, the reason to live and how you define it. Ken Mogi begins AWAKENING YOUR IKIGAI: How the Japanese Wake Up to Joy and Purpose Every Day with a story meant to illustrate the importance of this concept to the Japanese. He describes a famed sushi chef whose Tokyo restaurant is visited by President Barack Obama during a state visit and who is told by the president that his sushi was the best he had ever eaten. No big deal. “Ikigai resides in the realm of small things,” Mogi explains. “The morning air, the cup of coffee, the ray of sunshine, the massaging of octopus meat and the American president’s praise are on equal footing.”

Not really! Can I skip No. 4?

Mogi, a celebrity neuroscientist and broadcaster who has written more than 100 books, describes the five pillars of the ikigai way of life: “starting small,” “releasing yourself,” “harmony and sustainability,” “the joy of small things” and “being in the here and now” (what we might call “mindfulness”). And he demonstrates how some of the rituals most important to Japanese culture, from the tea ceremony to sumo wrestling, are based on these tenets. I admit that certain principles he espouses utterly baffled this Westerner, particularly the notion that in Japan finding purpose and joy in work, even work that requires great individuality and creativity, comes from a sublimation of the ego. He cites the example of the great anime artist Hayao Miyazaki, whose work is so repetitive and painstaking. Wait, if we all know who he is, how is he subsuming his ego? In work, Mochi explains, you have to be like a child, because “a child has no definite idea of the past or the future.” Seriously? Tell that to a 5-year-old screaming, “When will we get there?” in the back seat of a car because “there” involves ice cream.

I’m not sure if I could live in Japan for more than a week, what with all the appreciating of teeny porcelain objects and self-abnegation, but “Awakening Your Ikigai” is really quite a delightful look at sometimes mystifying Japanese traditions. (Spoiler alert: There’s a lot more to sumo wrestling than chubby dudes with man buns and diapers.) I can’t resist noting that in 2009, Mogi was charged with violation of Japanese tax laws for failing to report several million dollars in income. See? I guess America does have something to teach the citizens of other nations.

By Judith Newman, Jan. 23, 2018, first appearing in NYT > Books

Editor’s Note:

Judith Newman’s “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines” was published in August. Her column appears every eight weeks.

Beyond Baba Yaga: 8 Eastern European-Inspired Fantasies

Photo by Niilo Isotalo on Unsplash

Eastern European mythology, literature, and history are a gold mine for fans of speculative fiction. From the rich depth of Slavic folklore to the drama of the region’s history, there’s a wealth of elements for unfamiliar readers to discover, especially as translations from countries such as Russia and Poland make their way across the pond.

Readers interested in exploring Eastern European speculative fiction can check out these works by authors currently or previously living in Eastern European countries, as well as titles by American authors that draw inspiration from the region.

 

The cover of the book UprootedUprooted

NAOMI NOVIK

Every ten years, a girl from Agniezka’s village is taken by the wizard known as the Dragon who protects them from harm, and none of them return, even after the Dragon sets them free. Agniezka believes her perfect best friend Kasia will be the one chosen – but the Dragon chooses Agniezka instead.

This award-winning standalone novel begins as a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast with decidedly Eastern European influences. Novik crafts a fantastic world in Uprooted, so much so that it’s worth a read just to see what she does with it. And if you’re really into it, Novik’s returning readers to the same universe with the upcoming Spinning Silver.

 

The cover of the book Blood of ElvesBlood of Elves

ANDRZEJ SAPKOWSKI

The first novel in Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher Saga was published in the U.S. in 2009, following the 2007 release of The Witcher video game. Blood of Elves follows the series’ eponymous witcher, Geralt of Rivia, an assassin working to protect a child being hunted for her extraordinary powers.

Possibly the most widely-known franchise on the list, the Witcher Saga comprises 5 novels (the final book, Season of Storms, will be released April 2018) as well as two short story collections, which are both available in English. You may want to pick this series up fast: it’s currently being adapted as a Netflix series.

 

The cover of the book DeathlessDeathless

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE

Deathless marries the Slavic folklore figure Koschei the Deathless with the war-ravaged Russia of the early twentieth century. Its heroine, Marya Morevna, is whisked away from post-Russian Revolution Leningrad by Koschei, who intends to take her as his bride.

Valente explores an older Russian tale in the context of the wars taking place across Europe during the early twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution to the second world war and beyond.

 

The cover of the book There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's BabyThere Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby

LUDMILLA PETRUSHEVSKAYA

I have to admit that out of the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya books currently available in English, I picked this one because of the impressively long, impressively creepy title. And with the subtitle “Scary Fairy Tales,” there’s got to be something in this short story collection to enthrall you.

Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 Moscow, and her supernatural tales allude to the bleak realities of life under the Soviet Union. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby is a must-read introduction to one of Russia’s most prolific writers.

 

The cover of the book Blood Rose RebellionBlood Rose Rebellion

ROSALYN EVES

Unable to control her mysterious ability to break spells – and causing a disaster at her sister’s debut – British-born Anna Arden is banished to live with distant relatives in 1847 Hungary, where she’s drawn into the conspiracies simmering and about to boil over in the country.

The first book in Eves’ young adult fantasy trilogy is wonderfully researched and immersive, capturing the political unrest pervasive during the era. There are even some characters based on real people of 1840s Hungary, including one most readers might recognize: a young boy named Franz Ferdinand. Blood Rose Rebellion is an enthralling fantasy read, and it’s also one that can lead readers down new paths to learn about history they may not have encountered before.

 

The cover of the book Shadow and BoneShadow and Bone

LEIGH BARDUGO

Alina Starkov is an orphan and a soldier – at least until she accidentally unleashes magic she had no idea she even possessed. Drafted into the Grisha, the elite magical branch of the Ravka military, Alina struggles to learn how to manage her gift as the threat against Ravka grows.

Bardugo’s young adult Shadow and Bone trilogy is an absolute adventure and incorporates not only inspiration from Russian culture and history, but others as well. The trilogy is complete with Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, for readers (like myself) who love binging the entire series at once.

 

The cover of the book The Bear and the NightingaleThe Bear and the Nightingale

KATHERINE ARDEN

Set at the edge of Russian wilderness, The Bear and the Nightingale is another novel that draws on the wealth of Eastern European folklore to craft a fantastical tale. Vasilisa and her siblings have always honored the spirits in their household – until their father comes home with a new wife, whose religious beliefs are at odds with the traditions Vasya has long held.

The Bear and the Nightingale is an excellent next-read for those who already read Uprooted, and as a story set in the icy Russian wilderness, it’s also a great book to cozy up with when snowed out of work or school.

 

The cover of the book Night WatchNight Watch

SERGEI LUKYANENKO

In Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series, supernatural beings known as Others swear allegiance to one of two factions: the Light and the Dark. Anton Gorodetsky is a Light magician who works for the Night Watch, which has helped to maintain peace for hundreds of years – but a cursed Other without an alliance may shatter that peace once and for all.

Night Watch is more of a thriller than a fairy tale, and the urban fantasy setting makes it a refreshing contrast to many of the titles on the list. Two films based on the series were released in Russia, and the complete six-book Night Watch series has been translated and published in the U.S.

Award-Winning Storyteller, Charlotte Blake Alston

Telling Stories at the Moline Public Library

charlotte blake alston storyteller