Reading Round-Up: March 2018

I have been putting off and putting off writing this post, because I keep thinking that I need to write a proper full post for Culture Making before writing the round-up. But given that it’s mid-April… I think I need to accept that it’s not going to happen. So without further delay, here’s what I read last month:

  1. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Andy Crouch)
  2. Ross Poldark (Winston Graham)
  3. Demelza (Winston Graham)
  4. Jeremy Poldark (Winston Graham)
  5. Warleggan (Winston Graham)
  6. The Black Moon (Winston Graham)
  7. The Four Swans (Winston Graham)
  8. The Angry Tide (Winston Graham)
  9. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (Barbara Ehrenreich)
  10. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell)
  11. Meet the Frugalwoods (Elizabeth Willard Thames)

First: let’s talk Poldark! Some months ago our choir director played us a clip from some show I had never heard of (the music ends around the 1:12 mark):

That short minute or so of singing was enough for me to go hunting to find out what this “Poldark” thing was: a BBC/PBS production based on Winston Graham’s twelve-volume series of novels, set in Cornwall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My husband and I love watching period dramas together and so we devoured Poldark seasons 1 and 2 before I decided to see if our library system had the books. And they did, and then I was off to the races! I finished the first seven in March, before taking a small non-fiction break as a bit of a palate cleanser. Now, I think that Poldark is fantastic TV. We have really enjoyed watching it and are looking forward to season 4 which is supposed to air sometime this year. That being said: the books totally blow it out of the water. They are phenomenal. At the moment of writing this post I am about a hundred pages into Bella Poldark (book 12 of 12) and Graham has commanded my attention the whole way through. They are absolutely engrossing reading and I would highly recommend the series to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

As to March’s non-fiction reads —

Like I mentioned above, Culture Making really deserves its own post (that, at this point, it’s not likely to get). Andy Crouch devotes the first part of the book to looking at what “culture” is and isn’t, and detailing four of the Christian world’s typical responses to secular culture: to condemn, to critique, to copy, and to consume. As an alternative, he offers us two paths: that of the gardener (cultural cultivation) and the artist (cultural creation). For me, the most insightful/inspirational part of the book was in the latter half when he looks at the idea of cultural continuance in the New Heavens and New Earth (looking through the lens of both Revelation and some of the Old Testament prophets):

But just as we hope and expect to be bodily present, in bodies we cannot now imagine yet that we believe will be recognizably our own — just as the disciples met Jesus in a resurrected body that had unimaginable capabilities yet was recognizably his own — it seems clear from Isaiah 60 and from Revelation 21 that we will find the new creation furnished with culture. Cultural goods too will be transformed and redeemed, yet the will be recognizably what they were in the old creation — or perhaps more accurately, they will be what they always could have been. The new Jerusalem will be truly a city: a place suffused with culture, a place where culture has reached its full flourishing. It will be the place where God’s instruction to the first human beings is fulfilled, where all the latent potentialities of the world will be discovered and released by creative, cultivating people. (169)

and

We should ask the same question about our own cultural creativity and cultivating. Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to — the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice, the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks from and invest our wealth in — be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural traditions? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best, dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making “Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Christian” artifacts. Nor is this entirely a matter of who is responsible for the cultural artifacts and where their faith is placed, especially since every cultural good is a collective effort. Clearly some of the cultural goods found in the new Jerusalem will have been created and cultivated by people who may well not accept the Lamb’s invitation to substitute his righteousness for their sin. Yet the best of their work may survive. Can that be said of the goods that we are devoting our lives to? (171)

There is, of course, much more to the book than I can do justice to here — it’s well worth reading.

Speaking of cultural critique, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s most famous book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a year or so ago and promptly filled up my library list with her other titles. Bright-Sided looks at the “relentless promotion of positive thinking” as it impacts various facets of American life — most interesting to me were her takes on how enforced positive thinking has become part of our anti-disease regimen, particularly in regards to cancer, and her take on the prosperity gospel put forward in many American churches — especially mega-churches like that of Joel Osteen. It’s an insightful book, although longer on descriptions of the problem than on solutions — those have largely been left as an exercise for the reader.

And finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. I’ve read The Tipping Point and I think Blink was much better. It deals with “the power of thinking without thinking”, or intuition / gut reactions as we might be more used to naming them. A glance at its wiki page reveals that its reception has been fairly mixed, but it’s excellent food for thought. Blink is at its most powerful when discussing implicit biases; as an example, he looks at how the proportion of women playing in professional orchestras soared (from virtually none to near 50%) once screened auditions (where the player is hidden behind a screen so that the music is the only identifying aspect presented) became popular. For those willing to confront their own implicit biases in action, Gladwell mentions the online tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Those tests may not provide comfortable results — but Gladwell assures us that our biases can be challenged once we are aware of them. In this case, knowing is definitely more than half the battle.

Meet the Frugalwoods has already been reviewed in its own post.

Meeting the Frugalwoods

A few weeks ago, someone — I no longer remember who — posted a link on facebook to an article in The Guardian entitled “Extreme frugality allowed me to retire at 32 — and regain control of my life“. Well, I think it was that article. The point is, a few weeks ago I was introduced to Elizabeth Willard Thames, aka Mrs. Frugalwoods, who blogs at http://www.frugalwoods.com and whose book, Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living was recently released. I was intrigued; although we are not ourselves anywhere near a position that would let us retire in our 30s (ah ha ha ha ha ha ha) it seemed like it would be an interesting read. And while we do try to live fairly frugally, I wanted to see what that looked like for someone else — and especially what frugality looks like when you add the modifier “extreme” in front of it!

Thames’s book is half narrative memoir, half personal finance guide, a style that I found engaging. She traces their journey from her struggling days in AmeriCorps after college, where she ran up against both the very poor and the very rich, and realised that both parties suffered from an obsession with money, albeit for different reasons. After she and her husband, Nate, got married, they found themselves increasingly subject to lifestyle creep that left them stressed out, burning out, and spending way more money than they ever meant or needed to. Nate came up with a dream — to buy a homestead in rural Vermont and completely shift their lifestyle — and the means to achieve it: approximately 3.5 years of “extreme frugality” that would let them save up the money they would need to both buy a property and to live off the return from their investments. Well, that sounds nice.

There’s one thread running through the book which is both a strength and a weakness: the issue of privilege. Thames acknowledges that they started their frugal journey with the deck heavily stacked in their favour: they were college educated with no student debt, they both landed very well-paying jobs after graduation, their parents had raised them in happy and stable middle-class marriages with a lot of support and a certain amount of financial savvy, they had children relatively late in their relationship, and the list goes on. To Thames’s credit, she does recognise this — sometimes interrupting the narrative a bit jarringly to do reiterate it. But for those who aren’t starting in such a secure place, it’s hard to see what “extreme frugality” can really bring to the table. Many people who are not as well off don’t have those frugal corners to cut. We’ve already cut cable, we don’t have a daily latte habit, we rarely eat out, and we’re certainly not spending $40 a grocery shop on artisinal cheese. That’s not even addressing the fact that they were carrying no student debt, which is an incredible advantage. In her chapter “What is Financial Independence Anyway?”, she briefly touches on the problem of not being able to save:

If you can’t save enough, even with a regimen of true extreme frugality, then you probably need to look for ways to earn more, either through finding a new job or adding on a second job or side hustle. (134)

Gosh, just make more money! I wish I’d thought of that. And that’s my biggest beef with Meet the Frugalwoods: there’s no real getting away from the fact that Nate and Elizabeth Thames are wealthy. They keep track of their spending publicly on their blog (though not their income) and some months their “extreme frugality” still has them spending more money than we bring in. (See also: “Being frugal is for the rich” on theoutline.com)

That being said, there were a few helpful takeaways here. The first is intentionality: the idea of spending/saving/earning your money with deliberation and a real sense of what you are spending/saving/earning for. Are we spending money on things that we don’t need to spend money on? Are we saving for any particular goals, or just to be saving? What are we earning for (besides, you know, food on the table and whatnot) — what are our financial goals for this year? For this decade? For retirement? Being thoughtful with our money encompasses not only budgeting but long-term planning, and that was a good reminder.

The second takeaway is what Thames calls insourcing and what most of us would think of as DIY. We are living in the golden age of DIY — if I want to learn how to do/repair/make/etc. just about anything myself, that knowledge is only a few youtube tutorials away. My hair had been bothering me lately, so on Thursday I watched a bunch of tutorial videos and then gave myself a haircut. It’s not my best haircut ever — but it’s not my worst, either! And while I don’t get haircuts often enough (or at expensive enough salons) for this to be a huge money savings, I do enjoy adding to my skills and cultivating competency. That was another good reminder: there are more things that I can do myself, or that I can learn to do myself, than I always remember.

Overall, Meet the Frugalwoods is a fairly mixed bag. It’s definitely not a financial cure-all or guaranteed blueprint to financial independence (whatever that term may mean to you). But I think there are some helpful things to pick up from it, even if only in terms of reframing some of our thinking.