Live Lagom: Balanced Living, the Swedish Way, by Anna Brones

I’m a sucker for any book that promises to reveal another culture’s secret to a balanced, fulfilling life. As I sit in my home just outside the capital of the United States, where our government is (literally and figuratively) shut down, our population is sick and fat, and the public discourse is rancorous, it’s tempting to look abroad for answers about how better to live. When I heard about Live Lagom, which purports to present “actionable ways to create a more intentional and fulfilled lifestyle,” borrowing from the Swedish concept of lagom (balance and moderation), I snatched it right up.

Brones, the child of a Swedish immigrant to the United States, explains that lagom roughly translates to “just right,” and in practice means making a “moderate choice between two extremes.” Lagom is a unifying cultural practice and theme in Sweden, and influences design, food, and work culture. Brones purports that we Americans could benefit from a healthy dose of lagom, suggesting that it “might just be the trick for embracing a more balanced, sustainable lifestyle that welcomes the pleasures of existence rather than those of consumption.”

After introducing the concept of lagom, Brones suggests ways to apply it at work, at home, to ones’s health, and to the environment. I was most interested in the home/design element, since I’m quite taken by Swedish interior design, which manages to be both clean and cozy. I was, however, a bit disappointed by the practical pointers in the book. After a brief discussion of the elements of Swedish design, Brones makes tips about how to incorporate lagom into one’s own home, including mixing textures and arranging the space “so that it’s conducive to any relaxing activity.” Apart from being rather vague, these tips aren’t anything groundbreaking. I suppose I was hoping for more detailed (and surprising) pointers.

With the exception of a charming section full of Swedish recipes (and lovely photos), Brones’s advice is vague throughout the book. For example, in the section on work, she advocates for “unplugging,” but doesn’t delve further into what that might look like. I fear that Brones tried to accomplish too much with this little book. I wish she had chosen one area of focus — food, for example, or design — and delved deeper into how lagom works in that area, rather than skimming over a number of big concepts with little depth.

Nonetheless, I will attempt to incorporate lagom into my daily life as best I can in the midst of a very non-lagom world — and I might try out the book’s recipe for ostkaka (Swedish cheesecake) while I’m at it.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

It has taken me almost exactly a year to finish reading Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are a few reasons for this, including an abundance (read: two) children under the age of three in my household, a plethora of other writing and reading projects, and my reticence to pick up a hardcover book when it’s so much easier to read on my Kindle (I know; I’m a book Philistine). But the main reason it took me so long to finish is that I just could not warm up to this book. I tried; really, I did. But Hag-Seed just did not do it for me.

I’d read two Atwood books prior to Hag-Seed: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. I adored The Handmaid’s Tale and very much enjoyed Oryx and Crake. Atwood is a brilliant, inventive writer whose books push hard on social bruises. I love how her books make readers squirm. I was looking forward to her take on The Tempest, despite the fact that I’ve never read the play, because I’d had such good experiences with The Hogarth Shakespeare project in the past. This project asks contemporary writers to put their own spin on Shakespeare’s classics. Last year, I read Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time and loved it, despite having never read A Winter’s Tale. I was very appreciative of the fact that Winterson provided context for her take on A Winter’s Tale by providing a summary of the play in the beginning of her novel. This anchored Winterson’s story to Shakespeare’s original work so that even a reader as unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s canon as I could follow along and see the parallels Winterson was drawing.

With Hag-Seed, however, Atwood launches straight into her take on The Tempest without providing a summary of the original. This wouldn’t be a problem except that truly appreciating Hag-Seed‘s plot is highly dependent on a reader’s working knowledge of The Tempest. Thus, much is lost on a Shakespeare dunce like me.

Hag-Seed tells the story of a thwarted theater director, Felix, who takes revenge on the men who ruined his career. In the beginning of the story, Felix is the director of the respected Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, and is planning what he believes will be a career-making interpretation of The Tempest. However, he is forced out of his position by two rivals and his play never comes to fruition. He goes into a kind of exile, adopting a new identity as “Mr. Duke” and becoming the director of a theater/literacy program at a local prison. Years later, he hatches a plan for revenge on the men who forced him out of Makeshiweg, staging an “experimental” version of The Tempest with his prisoner-actors (“the Fletcher Correctional Players”) that he believes will force his enemies to rue the day they crossed him. Meanwhile, Felix is in close communication with the spirit of his daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago, when she was three years old.

As I read Hag-Seed, I could appreciate Atwood’s spare yet evocative prose, her wittiness, her effective building of tension and suspense. But I couldn’t get into the meat of the story. I couldn’t trace the parallels between this story and the play or admire the neat layering of The Tempest over and through Atwood’s story, because I am not familiar enough with Shakespeare’s original work. At times, reading Hag-Seed felt like reading a beautifully written review of The Tempest: I could tell it was well-executed, but having not read the play, I couldn’t totally follow the analysis.

Toward the end of the book, when the prisoner-actors each present a report on the characters they played, I found myself skimming, because their detailed analyses of Shakespeare’s characters meant nothing to me. And then, when I finally finished the novel, I was chagrined to see, tucked away at the very end of the book, a summary of The Tempest. Undoubtedly, if I had read that summary first, I would have gotten more out of Hag-Seed. But even so, I suspect that this book is meant more for readers with a deep (or at least working) knowledge of The Tempest. I’m afraid the fault here may be mine, but I am disappointed nonetheless.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this honest review.

The Curated Closet, by Anuschka Rees

I ordered The Curated Closet in the hopes that it would inspire me to clean out my closet, start fresh, revamp my look (whatever my “look” might be; I’m still not sure), pare down, throw out, winnow, and refresh. Now, as I’m staring down the barrel of the final six weeks of my second pregnancy, these goals of mine seem at best a reach, and at worst delusional. Given the occupied status of my uterus, I’m currently relegated to an all-maternity wardrobe and am in no mental state to go digging through my non-maternity clothes, small and attractive as they seem now, to decide what should stay and what should go. All of that being said, I can see The Curated Closet being a valuable tool when I have time on my hands, am feeling inspired to remake my wardrobe, and, most importantly, am no longer pregnant. Maybe.

On the cover of the book, Anuschka Rees purports to set forth a “simple system for discovering your personal style and building your dream wardrobe.” Her system, however, does not strike me as particularly simple. It includes such onerous tasks as creating a “mood board” in order to hone in on one’s personal style, studying color palettes, and even a “five-step lifestyle analysis” that involves, I kid you not, drawing pie charts. I guess if I had oceans of time on my hands and unlimited energy, this process would be workable. But from where I sit now, Rees’s system seems laughably complex. Don’t get me wrong: I WISH I were the type of person who could sit down and construct outfit pie charts, but alas, I am not and will never be, and so I found myself skimming over this “simple” guide to revamping my wardrobe with the sinking sense that I am doomed to wear the same old schlubby clothes for the rest of my life.

In theory, of course, Rees’s system makes perfect sense. It presents an organized, step-by-step way to approach remaking one’s wardrobe. However, I suspect that for most people with, say, jobs, children, and other commitments, it’s not entirely doable. Rees does say in the beginning of the book that you can choose to implement as few or as many parts of the system as you like, but I’m not sure what good making a mood board would do me if I fail to use the rest of her system for determining which pieces in my closet should stay or go, and vice versa.

This isn’t to say that I found the book useless. It includes lots of good information about the elements of style and wardrobe, quality (including what to look for with various fabrics), outfit composition, sample outfits, and tips on when to overhaul one’s wardrobe seasonally. I could see myself using it as a reference guide for buying new items of clothing. And I appreciated Rees’s overall message of choosing quality over quantity. She advocates only buying durable, quality clothing that fits in with one’s personal style, rather than chasing trends or deals.

In my dream world, someday I’ll be able to follow Rees’s system to the letter and end up with my dream wardrobe, but for now, I’ll tuck her advice into my back pocket and try to remember the quality over quantity mantra before buying yet another cheap tank top at Old Navy.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

I’ve been putting off reviewing Han Kang’s The Vegetarian because I don’t quite know what to say about it, or how I feel about the experience of reading it. Finishing it left me feeling confused, more than anything else, and a bit perplexed at my apparent inability to dig below the layers of allegory and metaphor to discover the book’s message. To be honest, I felt kind of stupid after reading The Vegetarian, and I’m not sure if that can be put down to a serious case of pregnancy brain/actual stupidity, or whether there’s simply a mismatch between my expectations for this book and my experience of reading it.


The Vegetarian is about a woman, Yeong-hye, who begins suffering from traumatic, bloody nightmares that impel her to give up eating meat (apparently still a bit of a no-no in Korean society), and the lengths her husband and family go to in order to convince her to abandon her vegetarianism. The book is told from the perspective first, of Young-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, then her sister’s husband (who goes unnamed), and finally, her sister, In-hye. The three narratives unfold in chronological order, so each third of the book takes place sequentially later in the story, meaning Young-hye’s condition deteriorates markedly as the narratives progress.

Each of the characters has his or her own agenda in relation to Young-hye’s sudden and perplexing vegetarianism. For Mr. Cheong, having his wife refuse to eat at important business dinners is a matter of great humiliation, and he attempts to exert his control in increasingly disturbing ways (including rape) to get his wife to go back to eating meat and being as she was before (which, by his account, was anodyne, inoffensive, and “completely unremarkable”). For Young-hye’s brother-in-law, his interest in her health quickly morphs into something sexual, almost fetishistic. He’s a visual artist and becomes obsessed with filming himself having sex with Young-hye while their bodies are covered in paintings of flowers (an idea that was sparked by the revelation that Young-hye, as an adult, still has a Mongolian spot). He ultimately achieves this fantasy but is caught by his wife, Young-hye’s sister, In-hye, and the consequences for their marriage are severe. Meanwhile, In-hye’s motives seem to be the purest. By the time In-hye’s portion of the book arrives, Young-hye is institutionalized and suffering from a combination of what appears to be anorexia and schizophrenia. In-hye is desperate for her sister to eat and recover but doesn’t know the best way to help her, and ends up standing by helplessly as her sister is subjected to force-feeding and other indignities at the institution.

The book traces Young-hye’s drastic deterioration in mental and physical health as each of the three secondary characters tries to exert his or her own influence over her, without success. In the end, Young-hye is miserable and craving death, and so is her sister, the one character who seems to actually care for Young-hye, even if she is misguided in her attempts to help her. (Incidentally: there’s also an implication at the very end of the book that In-hye has made a drastic and life-altering decision that will have horrible consequences down the road, but this passage was written so cryptically that I can’t be sure). The end of the book leaves the reader wondering if Young-hye — or even In-hye — will survive her ordeal, and whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

I finished the book, closed it, re-read a couple passages, and thought, “I’m not sure I get this.” To reduce it to its barest bones, The Vegetarian is the tale of a woman with severe mental health issues who doesn’t get the help she needs from anyone in her life and sinks further and further into misery. Her body is subjected to all manner of intrusive measures, some medical, some sexual, and no one seems willing to listen to her or attempt to understand her. And in the end, there’s no clear resolution. Young-hye is about to die, after suffering for years, and that’s that. It was unclear to me how the author wanted us to feel about this outcome, or whether there was any point to Young-hye’s long, strange ordeal.

The writing is punctuated with strong and often disturbing imagery — bloody entrails, trees with their heads in the ground, unfurling petals, a chunk of meat being shoved into an unwilling mouth — but I wasn’t able to parse out the deeper meaning underpinning those images. I can identify some big themes of this book: control, powerlessness, the strictures of Korean society, the burdens women (and particularly women in more male-dominated societies) bear, and the connection between mental and physical health, to name a few. But I’m not able, at this point, to tie these themes together in a cogent way to tell you what, exactly, this book is about, beyond its plot.

This isn’t necessarily a negative review. I suspect the fault lies with me, the reader, and not with the book. And I did find the book engrossing (and gross!) as I was reading it. But I’m still left with the feeling that I am missing something essential about it, that others are getting something from it that I’m not. Or maybe it’s just pregnancy brain.

(For what it’s worth, here is the New York Times‘s review of the book, which is far more eloquent and scholarly than mine — I read it after I had written this review and felt even more clueless than I already did. Oh, well).

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Cook Korean: A Comic Book with Recipes, by Robin Ha

I seriously love Korean food. Since I discovered the joys of bi bim bap, kimchi, and bulgogi as a twenty-something, I’ve considered Korean food to be one of my favorite cuisines, ranking right up there with Lebanese and sushi (nom). But I’ve never attempted to cook Korean food myself. It always seemed too daunting, what with the stone bowls and the grills and the pickled cabbage. Enter Robin Ha’s book, Cook Korean: A Comic Book with Recipes, which takes a novel approach to introducing beginners to making Korean food at home.


The book is exactly what it bills itself as: a comic book with recipes. Each two-page spread contains a simple recipe in illustrated form. In the prologue, Ha, a designer and cartoonist, explains that she learned to cook Korean food as an adult, asking her mother for easy recipes she could make on her own. She has translated these home cooking efforts into simple, followable recipes, covering everything from kimchi and pickles to porridges to grilled meat and even cocktails.

To orient the non-Korean/novice cook, Ha lays out the key ingredients necessary for proper Korean cooking, including red chile flakes, soybean paste, and red chile paste. She also explains how properly to cook rice, which is something I’ve never really mastered (but she makes it seem so easy). Ha’s book does a great job at making Korean food seem accessible to any home cook. Her illustrated recipes contain simple, helpful instructions, and she flags any unusual ingredients or methods (for example, in her recipe for bulgogi dupbap, garlic beef over rice, she says that while Asian pear is traditionally used in the marinade to tenderize the beef, you can also substitute kiwi).

Flipping through Cook Korean, I’m tempted to make a lot of dishes that I never thought I could handle, like grilled beef short ribs (galbi), pan-fried tofu (dubu buchim), or kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae). But even if I never make any of the recipes in the book, it’s fun to page through and is packed with interesting tidbits about Korean food and alcohol culture (for example: there are three “unspoken rules of drinking in Korea,” one of which is that you must never refill your own drink, because it’s considered bad luck). Ha’s book is cute, fun, and informative, and I’m glad to have it on my shelf.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson

I must make a confession: unless it’s produced by Baz Luhrman and involves a pre-fat Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m not big on Shakespeare. Sure, I’ve dabbled in Shakespeare. I’ve read Hamlet (and seen three different film adaptations of it, which should count for something), I’m vaguely familiar with the plots of several other plays, and, in law school, I was dragged along to a student production of Richard II (or maybe it was Richard III; I can’t remember because I was asleep). But that’s about the extent of it. And I’m okay with that.

Given my history (or lack thereof) with Shakespeare, I surprised myself when I chose Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Gap of Time to review. The Gap of Time is a “cover version of” Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This means that it’s a modern retelling of the play, in novel form. Or, as the back cover copy would have it, it “vibrates with echoes of the original but tells a contemporary story.”


The book is cleverly structured much like a play, broken down into three parts (acts, perhaps) and two rather poetic “intervals.” But before Winterson jumps into her cover version, she includes a summary of Shakespeare’s original, stripped down to its bare essentials (time, place, story). I found this mini-orientation helpful to refer back to as I read Winterson’s modern take on Shakespeare’s tale. She tweaked the original characters’ names (Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes becomes Xeno; Hermione becomes MiMi, and so on), so it was easy enough to trace the story as I went along.

Winterson’s little summary of The Winter’s Tale is the only interaction I’ve ever had with that play, so I was more or less going into the story as a blank slate, with no expectations about how a cover version might compare to the original. That said, I really enjoyed this novel, both for its tight plot construction and Winterson’s gorgeous writing. I read this book in paperback and I found myself turning down pages to mark particularly beautiful sentences.

Many of Winterson’s most moving and beautifully built passages focus on the passage and impact of time, the book’s most prominent motif (and hence the title). In describing a first meeting between Perdita and Zel, who would later go on to become a couple, Winterson manages to capture universal feelings of impatience and nerves and fate with only a few well-chosen words:

And she wished that everything that had to happen had happened. That time would intervene and free them. That they could begin.

And he wished he could touch her and everything would pass through him and she would know him and they would begin.

She said, “Hi.”

He said, “I brought you these flowers.”

The story itself is interesting enough, but the deep way Winterson renders her characters, as complicated (and in some cases broken and stunted) emotional beings, makes it compelling. I was surprised by how engaged I was by this book; I was expecting to have to choke it down, like medicine.

The Gap of Time is part of The Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which famous contemporary authors retell Shakespeare’s classics. I looked at the list of other books in the project and they include Hamlet as retold by Gillian Flynn, Macbeth as retold by Jo Nesbø, and The Tempest as retold by Margaret Atwood. Maybe I’ll become a Shakespeare person, after all.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Good + Simple, by Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley

Reviewing cookbooks is always a bit of a crapshoot. It’s just so easy to be disappointed. Too often, a cookbook that looks beautiful will contain gorgeous pictures but crappy recipes, or a cookbook promising to deliver “easy” and “simple” will tend toward the complicated and labor-intensive, or a cookbook that you’re sure you’ll use all the time will end up collecting dust on the shelf because the recipes take too long, or don’t sound that appetizing, or require too many weird ingredients. Hence, I approach each new cookbook with low expectations. So I’ve been bowled over by how much I’ve enjoyed Good + Simple, the new cookbook from sisters Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley.


I wasn’t familiar with Hemsley and Hemsley before receiving this cookbook, and so I sought out their bio online. They seem to be big in the UK: they have a television show on BBC Channel 4, plus a Hemsley + Hemsley Cafe in Selfridge’s in London. Their cooking philosophy is centered on “creating natural, satisfying and easy to digest meals that make you feel vibrant, strong and healthy; recipes that are full of flavour and goodness and free from gluten, grains and refined sugar.” They lay out some “principles for eating well” in the beginning of the book, which include “forget calories, think nutrients,” “fat is your friend,” and “stress less.” They also emphasize gut health (which, in my experience, tends to be an umbrella term for a lot of pseudoscience) and bone broth (and we already know how I feel about bone broth), but generally, I’m on board with their approach.

But are the recipes any good? Yes!

First of all, as I paged through the book, I kept seeing recipes that I actually wanted to make. To name a few: Big Green Frittata, Quick Coconut Dahl with Zingy Slaw, Superbly Simple Broccoli Soup Three Ways, Sri Lankan Squash Croquettes, Veg Mash Three Ways, Mum’s Philippine Beef Sinigang, Chicken Comfort Pie, Miso and Eggplant Dip, and Choc Mud Fridge Tart. Yum.

To start off, I decided to give one of the soups a whirl. I love soup and make it often, all throughout the year. A lot of the soups in the index sounded good — I was torn between minestrone and cream of tomato — but I went with minestrone. The book includes recipes for minestrone two ways:  Summer Minestrone with a Vibrant Basil Oil, or Warming Winter Minestrone with Punchy Garlic Dressing. Since it’s hot outside, I went with the summer version. Although I was tempted to tinker with the recipe (for example, substituting olive oil for the coconut oil they suggested to fry the veggies), I stuck with the recipe as written and only made two tweaks (I used an entire can of cannelini beans instead of the handful of frozen peas or fava beans they suggested, and I bought canned diced tomatoes instead of dicing up twelve tomatoes myself). And the results were fantastic! The basil oil really added a bright, summery, kick to a standard minestrone. The recipe was also full of veggies that I wouldn’t normally think to use in a pot of soup, like eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes. My husband and I both ate big portions and felt good afterwards. Yum.

Encouraged by my success with the minestrone, last night I turned to the Vegetable Mains section and decided to make the Green Goddess Noodle Salad. This is a veggie-heavy dish featuring soba (buckwheat) noodles and a sesame, ginger, and lemon dressing. IT WAS SO GOOD. I ate at least two servings (maybe three) and will be having it again for dinner tonight (with some fresh noodles and spinach added in). Even my husband, who is skeptical of too much green stuff in one sitting, tried some when he got home from a late flight and pronounced it “really good.”

Good + Simple really delivers healthy, tasty, feasible-for-a-weeknight recipes. I think this is going to become a staple in my cookbook library, and can’t wait to try more of the recipes.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.