Book Review: Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton

Wabi Sabi by Beth KemptonI’m wary of life guides these days. I went through a phase of ploughing through self-help manuals a decade ago and still have a pile of books selling success and unlimited cash stashed in a cupboard somewhere.  Most of them were wildly out of sync with my own nature – I’m not a fiercely-driven entrepreneur seeking vast wealth or a person who is looking to find themselves (although perhaps I didn’t realise this at the time). The tips were often unrealistic too and I frequently felt demoralised when I didn’t achieve my goals. Because of this I pretty much steered clear of this genre until I heard of Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life and thought its gentle approach might be more in tune with my lifestyle.

I already knew a little of Beth’s journey and her kindness of spirit through Instagram. She’s an entrepreneur, writer and mother who really takes time to help people. She also has a longstanding connection to Japan after living and working there for many years.  This deep awareness of Japanese culture coupled with Beth’s progressive attitude towards life persuaded me to buy a copy and I’m really glad I did.

Physically Wabi Sabi is a compact book and beautifully produced, yet it’s size doesn’t reflect the universal scope of the themes within.  These stretch from the philosophical to the practical, offering checklists and realistic ways of bringing this Japanese world view into your everyday life.  Wabi Sabi is hard to define and Beth concedes this early on, but her summary below gives a basic overview of the concept.

‘Wabi sabi (“wah-bi sah-bi”) is a captivating concept from Japanese aesthetics, which helps us to see beauty in imperfection, appreciate simplicity and accept the transient nature of all things”

She then takes us on a considered journey through history and art to explain how the aesthetic evolved and how it manifests itself in Japanese thinking – as much as that’s possible.  One thing I loved about this book is that it has a soft focus and specific answers are rarely given.  You don’t have to read it in a linear way either although I would recommend this as it gives a fuller sense of the principles at work.

Despite the abstract nature of Wabi Sabi, Beth provides lots of concrete examples of how to integrate this aesthetic at home and at work by sharing anecdotes from her own life.  I found these particularly useful – even the small incidents such as remembering to remain positive in difficult situations (in this case making the wrong booking at a hotel) had huge value.  There are also checklists and tips within each section covering subjects ranging from developing resilience to creating a wabi-sabi-inspired home.  I recognised some of the pointers from coaching practice and although I wasn’t entirely sure if they fitted the rest of the text, I’m sure many readers would find them helpful.

Add to this reflections on ageing, finding the right career, decluttering finances and appreciating nature and you begin to see how far-reaching the material is.  It seems like a lot to cover in only 219 pages and it is, but somehow it all works brilliantly because it’s written from the heart.

I felt as if I’d been on an intense retreat by the time I finished the book.  Overwhelmed, yet invigorated and inspired. Wabi Sabi isn’t a one-pass read, it’s a wise little friend that you can turn to time after time. I would recommend it for anyone who’s trying to slow their lives down a little and see the bigger picture.  It won’t solve all your problems but will make your life a little more perfectly imperfect.










Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Processed with VSCO with  presetTo save her child, she will trust a stranger. To protect a secret, she must risk her life . . .

I first became aware of The Familiars when it was acquired after a nine-way auction and applied for an advance copy as soon as I could. Being partial to a bit of sorcery, I was instantly drawn to this historical re-imagining of the Pendle witch trials told from the perspective of pregnant 17-year-old noblewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth.

From the outset, I could understand why so many publishers battled for this story. The writing is incredibly fluid, pitch perfect with just the the right amount of lyricism.  We see Fleetwood’s world so clearly – her decadent lifestyle juxtaposed against the real fear that a third miscarriage could lead to her death.  With such high stakes, it’s inevitable that she becomes desperate for help even if it arrives in the form of Alice Gray, a mysterious and impoverished woman who has ties to the hated Pendle witches.

The growing bond between the two women forms the backbone of the story while events twist and turn around them.  The pace is handled nicely – enough plot to move the action along but also richly descriptive.  I felt for the characters, particularly Fleetwood who never gives up although she is at the mercy of her husband and her own body throughout the novel. Although Alice isn’t as clearly drawn, there are reasons for her enigmatic nature which become evident later on. These are women whose lives are restricted by society and they must tread carefully if they are to survive.

Unusually for me, I flew through the book which says a lot about the writing.  I was compelled to find out what would happen and although the ending seemed a little rushed, it was also satisfying on a number of levels.  I was left with a sense of wanting more – always a good sign. One thing I would mention though is that despite the title, don’t expect a paranormal novel. There is a suggestion of witchcraft, but the references are incredibly subtle.  The role of the familiars is a minor one and never quite explained so if you’re hoping for overt magic you won’t find it here.  However, if you’re looking for an atmospheric historical read with touches of weird then this is perfect for dark evenings and windswept days.

The Familiars is due to be published 19 February 2019. You can pre-order here.





Book Review: The Thriving Child by Dr William Stixrud and Ned Johnson

Mum and daughter balancing on a tightrope

I read a whole bunch of parenting books when Little M was a baby and then stopped – mainly because nothing really seemed to answer the questions I had and partially because there was too much choice, but as soon as I spotted The Thriving Child in a Penguin Random House Instagram giveaway, I sensed that it could really help our family.

Like many 5 year-old kids, Little M is a child of two halves fluctuating between being fiercely independent and pretty clingy.  She also has a wild imagination which can make her prone to anxiety so I was keen to see if this book could offer any tips on how to encourage resilience.

And did it?

Yes and more. What I love about this guide is how it veers away from trying to force your child down the standard path of academic achievement.  Instead it advocates letting them make their own choices (within reason!) and learn the art of self-motivation.  It sounds fairly radical, but when you sit down and work through it, there’s a lot of common sense in the advice.  The parent takes a consultancy role rather than being a micro-manager and there are lots of case studies in the book to explain how to apply the approach in real life situations. The authors have bags of experience when it comes to helping children achieve their full potential and you get the full benefit of their knowledge as you read the book.

The bulk of the guide focuses on older children and is written for the US market, but the tips can be applied to all children and I’m really glad that I’m aware of these techniques while Little M’s still young.  I’d much rather that she has the tools to develop her own passions than be pushed down a route that might not suit her skills. And if she learns how to cope with and push through inevitable setbacks on the way then even better.

We won this copy of The Thriving Child: The Science Behind Reducing Stress and Nurturing Independence by Dr William Stixrud & Ned Johnson (published by Penguin Books). All words and pictures are our own.




Book Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Processed with VSCO with l4 presetI enjoy getting lost, literally and metaphorically. I love that sensation of disorientation followed by discovery,  a frightening freedom. Sometimes, on a family day out, we’ll follow unmarked lanes and see where we end up. I also lose a lot of things – keys, tickets, shoes – much to the irritation of my nearest and dearest so was very keen to read A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a collection of essays about loss, losing and being lost.

There are nine meditations in total, inspired by a quote from Meno, one of Plato’s dialogues “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” If you just had to read this several times, you’re not alone! It’s a thought-twister, but as you join Solnit in her contemplations, you begin to get a sense of what she’s searching for.  Only by surrendering to uncertainty, do we find out new ways of being.

This is my first encounter with Solnit’s writing and I was unprepared for the sheer amount of recollections, ideas and information that she covers in a small distance.  Four of the essays are titled The Blue of Distance for “Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance to us.” It is “the light that gets lost”, but the subjects in each essay are diverse – touching on art history, captivity narratives, country and western music, cartography.  In the fourth, there is a fascinating piece about the post-war artist Yves Klein, famous for his exploration of the void.  After reading this, I suddenly remembered how I’d been struck dumb by one of his blue monochromes as a teenager.  I experienced these flashes of insight many times while reading Solnit’s essays. She has a knack for linking moments and facts so that they set off chain reactions that continue beyond the page – taking you into new territories.

But don’t expect sharp clarity here. This is a beautiful, often tragic landscape of meanderings, dreams and musings.  It’s not for one sitting, rather a series of short, intense immersions – a loose invitation to living a curious and expansive life.  As Solnit writes –  “Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that make you navigate more slowly and steadily. But fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living, for life is risky and anything less is loss.”




Book Review: The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

I’ll start by confessing that this is the second time I’ve read this book. When I first attempted it, I simply wasn’t in the right mood , and I’m so glad that I gave it another go because this is yet another Rundell triumph.

The story begins with a plane crash and four children – keen explorer Fred, spiky Con and Brazilian siblings, Lila and five-year-old Max.  Alone in the jungle, they have to pool their scant knowledge in order to survive. Despite the terrible odds (snakes, caiman, piranha…yes there are some nasties in the book, but this is the Amazon rainforest after all), Lila’s optimism helps to buoy their spirits and they manage to stay alive.  But they also need to find a way to return home, and this is where the Explorer comes in.  I won’t give too much away – needless to say that Rundell has once again fashioned a truly memorable character capable of both anger and kindness, not entirely likeable yet with good reason.  His voice lends a wider perspective to the novel – touching on subjects such as the environment and colonialism without beating the drum too loudly.

The writing is satisfying as always.  I found the prose cleaner than in Rundell’s earlier works but her trademark inventiveness can still be found in phrases such as ‘The ants were so small it was like being covered in full stops, ‘ and ‘The jungle was an infinite sweep of green: a Turkish carpet for a god.’ Personally, I preferred this simpler style and it carried me swiftly through the book, deftly revealing how the children become mentally and physically stronger, as well as closer to one another. There’s a sense of repressed emotion throughout the novel, which made the ending all the more moving. And I loved the epilogue. It was the perfect way to end this exciting tale and leave us hoping that there might be another story to follow.

I’d recommend The Explorer for fans of survival and discovery stories – think Bear Grylls meets The Lost City of Z.  If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!