Category Archives: Live the best life


Financial blogger Ruth Soukup offers advice for getting the most out of life without going broke.

Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life

Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life

I was surprised at the depth of this book. There’s more here than tips on how to get stuff cheap or cut your grocery bill, though that kind of information is included. But the author also shares her own personal demons–clinical depression bad enough to lead to hospitalization, compulsive overspending. She makes clear the link between emotional conflict and overbuying, clutter and excessive spending, and offers a good discussion on the philosophy behind moderation.

On the practical side, there are plenty of questions and exercises to help readers define The Good Life as it relates to their own lives. Soukup shows how to take steps toward gaining control of your wants, so that you meet your needs and build a solid money management style. The tone throughout is conversational and approachable. There’s a definite Christian slant, but it doesn’t cross the line into preachy and it doesn’t diminish the book’s value to those with a more secular view of the world.

A useful book about the meaning of money and the power it exerts.

What Makes A Good Life?

A biography of literature’s first essayist organized around twenty-one answers to the question: How to Live?

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Bakewell’s exploration of Michel de Montaigne gives us a good sense of the man, his time and his philosophy…or rather his attempt to arrive at a philosophy. Montaigne was an admirer of the Skeptic and Stoic branches of Hellenic thought, which basically tells people to a) question everything and b) take life as it comes. This is a great prescription for studying the world and one’s own mind, but wasn’t all that conducive to one’s health and safety in a time of religious fanaticism and civil strife.

The author does a good job presenting the complicated political and religious conflicts of the time in a way that is understandable to those without specific knowledge about life in 16th-century France. She also shows us how Montaigne, a politician as well as a thinker, managed to negotiate his way through these troubles while keeping his humanity in tact.

Some chapters are harder work than others. Bakewell juggles three time lines: biographical, historical and literary. It requires time and close attention to take it all in. For me, it was the literary time line that lagged. All the intrigue about the many versions of the essays produced in Montaigne’s lifetime and then the petty intellectual battles surrounding the editing and interpretation of the work through the centuries got a bit tedious.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent introduction for Montaigne and it made me add his daunting ESSAYS to my reading list.

The Comfort of Your Own Company

In How to Be Alone, Sara Maitland offers an interesting historical/cultural view of solitude and considers its place in modern life. She presents the meaning and value of being alone as a sort of pendulum that has swung back and forth in popularity through time. I’m not sure I agree with a conclusion based on such limited evidence. Just because ancient Romans valued public life to excess doesn’t mean the same was true of other cultures in existence at the time. What about China and the Near East?

How to Be Alone

How to Be Alone

I’m also not sure Maitland makes her case that a strong preference for solitude is seen as a huge eccentricity in modern western culture. Rather, we seem to be living in an era when widely differing modes of living are acceptable. A lot, of course, may depend on profession and age. In the corporate world, being reclusive might indeed get someone pigeonholed as sensitive or introverted or a “deep thinker.” School-age kids and young adults who like to be alone probably run a greater risk of peer and parental backlash than older people do. Also, Maitland doesn’t really address how modern technology has blurred the lines of what constitutes “being alone.” People can now carry on active social lives without ever leaving their homes. Yet, physically, they are still alone.

Maitland does admit that her previous memoir/cultural history A Book of Silence suffered a bit from the confusion of the terms “alone” and “silence.” The same confusion is present in How to Be Alone, but I don’t think it’s a flaw. Rather, the two concepts naturally share the same space. Kind of like conjoined twins, you can’t easily tease them apart or examine one without considering the other.

I have to agree with Maitland that most people could benefit from expanding their capacity for being alone. More and more of us end up alone–through death or divorce or just long life spans. It pays to learn to be comfortable with your own company. Also, young people who don’t need to be part of a gang have the opportunity to develop their own interests and talents. Maitland provides numerous exercises for those who might want to experiment with solitude. Such as going to a crowded place by yourself or taking a trip alone or indulging in periods of private reverie.

I highly recommend How to Be Alone. It provides a lot of material for discussion in one concise, thoughtful package.

Why a Book Blog? Celebrating 100 Posts.

Well, friends, when I started the blog in late December of 2013, I was cautiously optimistic. I’d tried blogging a few years before. This Literary Life was meant to be a journal of the life and times of a working writer. Problem was the life of a writer, at least this writer, isn’t much different from everyone else’s. My posts on the struggle to finish a project or find an agent seemed so beside the point. “Who cares?” I asked myself. “Who needs to know that I wasted an afternoon playing sixty rounds of Free Cell rather than edit my new story? Is there anything insightful or even entertaining about it?”

No. Not really. And that’s probably why I abandoned my blog after a dozen or so posts.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t really “get” blogging. The advice from writer’s magazines and writer’s conference panels was that having a blog is critical if you want to land an agent and publisher, or, if you’re already published, to expand your audience. Yet, at the time, most of the successful writers I knew of didn’t blog. Some didn’t even have websites.

After This Literary Life faded away, any time someone mentioned blogging my brain automatically checked out of the conversation. Blah. Blah. Blah. Tell me another one.

Then came the Independent Publishing Revolution. Thanks to print-on-demand technology and the emergence of e-books, a writer no longer has to toil for years over a novel only to stack in her closet with all the others she couldn’t get the traditional publishing industry to take notice of. Now a writer’s career is in her own hands–from composition, to production, to promotion.  Author websites are no longer a cool way for the as-yet-unpublished to feel like a “real” writer. They are home base for a genuine professional business and a way for a writer to connect with readers.


That’s a group I know something about. Not only because I want them, an audience of my own, but because I am one myself. A reader. Passionate. Obsessive. Voracious.

Writer. Reader. This book blog became a way for me to merge my twin identities. A place to compile my reactions to the books I read. E-books. Print books. Much loved classics by long-dead masters. Popular bestsellers.  The debut offerings of indie adventurers. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the source, each book I feature gets a close reading and in-depth, careful critique.

Even better, this time around it’s no struggle finding material for my blog. I’m always reading. There is always a fascinating new author to interview. Sometimes I’m very very lucky and a writer I’ve reviewed or otherwise featured will grow into a friend. Someone to trade book recommendations with and moan to about how grueling and tedious it’s been editing my latest project.

Somehow, without really noticing, I’ve racked up 100 posts. I’ve enjoyed it, too. This book blog isn’t a chore. It’s FUN! Partially because I’m reading even more that I did before I started it. My television is getting dusty. And my Free Cell stats are in the toilet. I don’t have the time to play computer card games.

Too much to read.

Ice is Nice, but a Personal Perspective is Precious.

Don’t mistake me. I’m thrilled that the current Ice Bucket Challenge rage has raised millions for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) research. Anything that gets people together and working toward a common goal is wonderful in my book. So, fill those buckets and get wet. But afterward, when you’ve changed into dry clothes and are kicking back with a cup of coffee, think about digging a little deeper, learning a little more about the devastating neurological condition you’ve just raised money for.

I know a great place to start.

Until I Say Goodbye by Susan Spencer-Wendel is a first-person account of living (and laughing) with ALS. Susan recently left us, but don’t let that stop you from reading her honest, surprisingly joyful memoir. I read and reviewed the book on Amazon and Goodreads back in June.  I’m posting it here now in hopes that it will get some of you to take a closer look at what all the press coverage and YOUTUBE videos are really about. People. Real people who don’t have a chance unless we find a cure for ALS. People like Susan.

Until I Say Goodbye: A Book about Living

Until I Say Goodbye: A Book about Living

I hate reviews that start “I loved (or hated) this book.”

But I did. I loved it.

I saw the Susan Spencer-Wendel and her husband on a nightly news show–can’t remember which one–and found it odd that the author was, well, alive. Usually, end-of-life memoirs come out posthumously or are written by a surviving family member, the whole point being that time has given them perspective on the events and allowed them to draw some universal conclusions from the experience. Yet, I was intrigued enough to sit on my library’s hold list for two months. And, once I read the book, in a single laughter-and-tears marathon session, I toyed with never giving it back.

Spender-Wendel’s memoir as all about perspective, all about finding meaning and forging connections…and doing so while an invisible but ever louder clock counts down the final moments of her life.

Terminal illness is never easy, but there’s something about ALS, the way it kills its victims muscle fiber by muscle fiber, robbing them of movement, speech, and eventually even the ability to breathe unassisted, that seems especially cruel. But ALS is Spender-Wendel’s reality. Her only choice is how she will approach her remaining days–sad and terrified or with a joyful fire. The author chooses fire, and thanks to her fearlessness and determination to consume every moment left to her, she’s created something true and beautiful.

I’ll say it again. I loved this book. And you will, too.

Travels in Fiction: Long Island Wine Country–Part I

When I decided to set Knife Skills,  my retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park on eastern Long Island, I had already moved to Las Vegas. I figured I’d have to use whatever photos I’d collected during my pre-writer days supplemented by maps and travel brochures. And that was fine. As Thomas C. Foster states in his marvelous How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form, “Places in a work of fiction are never real but must behave as real.” 

Fiction is all about making things up.Long Island NY 001

But, in the spring of 2005, an unexpected family emergency led to a three-week trip back to Long Island. During that time, I traveled the highways and byways of the north and south forks scouting locales like a movie producer.

The main action takes place on a vineyard in the small north shore town of Mattituck.  Below, hubby (On the right. Boy, he was young there!) poses with his mom and younger brother in front of the neighborhood grocery store.

Mattituck 001








Next up is the bakery that stands in for Delgado’s, my character Molly’s high school workplace and where her love affair with pastries began. Her big dream is to buy the place from Mr. Delgado and open her own tea shop.

Mattituck 002But her uncle, who raised her and put her through cooking school, has opened a new restaurant on his vineyard.

Molly can’t just up and leave him…can she?



What I love about Mattituck is its quaint, small-town feel.

Mattituck 005Mattituck 003Mattituck Marina 001Mattituck 006There’s a wonderful contrast between the town’s thriving business district and the wide open spaces surrounding it.

I wanted a town that inspired a sense of homecoming in Molly after the collapse of her troubled marriage and the grueling marathon of cooking school.

Mattituck is the sort of place that makes you slow down and take deeper breaths.

It’s also at the center of one of the region’s best kept secrets: what began as a patchwork of vineyards and wineries burgeoned over the past two decades into an industry producing  world class vintages that can be found at local eateries and in the finest restaurants in the Hamptons and NYC.

In my next post, I’ll offer a behind-the-scenes peek of a working vineyard and winery. From vines to fermentation vats to tasting rooms–it’s a view of Long Island you won’t want to miss!











Putting YOUR First Thing First: A Review of ESSENTIALISM by Greg McKeown

Corporate cog, small business owner, artist, or harried stay-at-home parent–we all have big goals we’d like to pursue if we could just find enough time in the day. The number one piece of advice offered by teachers, mentors, life coaches and time management gurus? Prioritize. Sounds great. But how does one do that when faced with a never-ending list of must-dos?

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

According to author Greg McKeown, the first thing to dump is the list.

A “priority,” he says, is ONE thing. The First thing. Discovering what your First thing is–and how to structure life so that you’re able to focus on it–is what ESSENTIALISM: THE DISCIPLINED PURSUIT OF LESS is about.

The concept is simple enough: Do less but do it better. Yet, as we know, simple doesn’t mean easy. There’s nothing easy about admitting to your boss that you cannot possibly do justice to project he’s set on your desk when there are three other ones demanding your attention. It isn’t easy to give up your bowling league, your online gaming group, and your book club to finally finish that novel you’ve been writing since college. And it’s downright excruciating to say to your kids: will it be karate, soccer OR drama? Because mom and dad need their time, too.

What McKeown proposes is a radical re-think of how we design our days and focus our attention. ESSENTIALISM is directed to the corporate world, but the ideas and suggestions are easily adaptable for those in public service, the self-employed, students or those looking to make the most of a hobby they’re passionate about. It really is up to each of us how far we want to take this philosophy–from solving a particular problem (How do I plan a wedding for 500 AND sleep AND not lose my job?) to a total life makeover that strips our days down to the barest and most meaningful essentials. The book provides a framework for individual readers to explore, adapt and build upon.

I do wish Essentialism was a bit longer and included more case studies of people in varying life/work situations. I guess that would undermine the premise–that our lives are OUR lives and only we know what our priority (in the singular!) should be. Nevertheless, it would have been helpful for McKeown to delve a bit more into the problem of competing demands–as a father of small children, he must have plenty of experience with the challenge of balancing family and work. Also, some might say that his view of how bosses will take take an employee’s decision to skip time-wasting meetings or reject new projects is overly optimistic, especially in our still-recovering job market.

I borrowed my copy of ESSENTIALISM from the library, but I’m going to buy my own. It looks to be one of those books that become more and more useful as you put its ideas to work. It’ll be something to turn to when, invariably, I find myself allowing the trivial to hijack my “one wild and precious life.”