Monday, December 21, 2015

Savage Beauty - Nancy Milford

subtitle: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

"My candle burns at both ends;
     It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends--
     It gives a lovely light."

Do you remember this rhyme?  It was written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who went mostly by her middle name, Vincent, and was a torch bearer for the young women of the 1920's.  She was the most famous poet of the Jazz Age and flaunted convention - she smoked in public, had many lovers and was a prolific poet, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.  Millay was known for her sonnets and also wrote plays.

Her poem "Renascence" [deliberate spelling] won her attention at 20 years old and the controversy over it not being awarded the top prize in the Literary Year magazine brought her to the attention of a patron who paid for her education at Vassar.  She moved to Paris in 1921 and married a man 11 years her senior who took care of her and their domestic needs the rest of their lives.

The author of this biography previously wrote the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald.  She had access to the letters and drafts of Millay's and worked extensively with her sister, Norma, in the writing of the biography.  The author uses the letters and documents to show the effort Millay expended in writing her poetry and to illuminate her experiences that led to the poems.

I think it was a thorough, accurate, and detailed record of Millay's life that got bogged down at the end in presenting her letters instead of interpreting or commenting on them.  

Published:  2001  Read: December 2015  Genre: Biography

City of Women - David R Gillham

This novel was the suggestion for one of my reading groups for December.  It is a thriller that tells the story of the mostly female population left in Berlin at the end of WWII and how they struggled to survive.

There is a lot of detail on the city of Berlin, impressing me with the research that the author apparently did to be authentic to the time.  It became tedious as the book went on, however.

There was not a character in this book that I really liked.  The main character, Sigrid, is a middle aged woman married to a German soldier with a nasty mother-in-law and suspicious neighbors.  Everyone is reporting and turning on each other.  Sigrid befriends a young woman in her apartment building who turns out is assisting with smuggling Jews out of the country and enlists Sigrid in the effort.  Sigrid is taken in, partly due to her passionate affair she'd had with a Jewish man she meets in a theatre.

Our group had a long discussion on the effects of war and the mentality of a population that would allow the annihilation of a people.  It was instructive to discuss how the economics of Germany after WWI paved the way for the hatred and fear of Hitler's regime. I was impressed with the need to understand history in the long term perspective.  Most of all, I found myself asking, "What would I have done?"  Would I have been brave? Would I have tried to stay uninvolved?  Would I have resisted?

Published: 2012  Read: December 2015  Genre: Historical fiction

To Have or To Be - Erich Fromm

This one has been on my TBR (To Be Read) list for a long time, I'm sure it was a recommendation from one of the blogs I follow on simplicity or finances.

The original text was written in 1976 and this version was published in 1997 as part of the World Perspective Series.

Fromm's thesis is that if we understand the difference between having and being we will see the advantages of simplicity and realize spiritual wealth.  He begins with illustrating how the idea of possession has crept into our language (example - "I have a problem" instead of "I am troubled") and leads to alienation from who we are.

"The attitude inherent in consumerism is that of swallowing the whole world.  The consumer is the eternal suckling crying for the bottle".

He suggests that reading a novel can be done in the mode of having or being and when read in the being mode the reader "enhances their knowledge and deepens their insight into human nature or gains knowledge about themselves".

He explains that in the being mode "private having (private property) has little affective importance, because I do not need to own something in order to enjoy it or even in order to use it" Sharing creates "one of the deepest forms of human happiness: shared enjoyment".

He contrasts pleasure and joy with joy being "not the ecstatic fire of the moment...but the glow that accompanies being".

He suggests that "most consumption engenders passivity; that the need for speed and newness, which can only be satisfied by consumerism, reflects restlessness, the inner flight from oneself...that looking for the next thing to do or the newest gadget to use is only a means of protecting oneself from being close to oneself or to another person".

The book is complex, addressing not only the individual but society and government.  Definitely food for thought.

Published: 1976  Read: December 2015  Genre: Philosophy, Sociology

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Your Money or Your Life - Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

I think I first read this life changing book back in 1996; it may have been even earlier.  It was written in 1992 at the height of the "greed" decade, those years when it was all about making more, getting more, having more.  It influenced my thinking ever since.

Joe Dominguez was a wall street financial analyst who retired at 31 years of age.  He and Vicki championed the idea of financial independence or "FI".  They have a detailed step by step plan from starting out with understanding how much you *really* are earning and what you are selling your life energy for to suggestions for investing in treasury bonds (not so lucrative these days, but still secure and paying).  Their steps to FI are succinctly:
1) reduce and keep your expenses to what you need
2) save the rest of what you earn
3) invest your savings in income producing assets

When the income from your savings cover your expenses you will have reached FI. Basically, you end up paying yourself.

Their approach was more than just about money.  It was about living sustainably and looking inside of yourself for fulfillment, rather than consuming and buying to soothe yourself.

Some notes I made back when I first read the book:

p 26    Beyond enough is clutter
p 28    Clutter is also meaningless activities, like TV, that add nothing to your life
p 35    Once you're above the survival level the difference between prosperity and poverty is simply in our degree of gratitude.
           *Money is what we trade for our life energy.
p 232  Breaking the link between wages and work - I'm paid to work as a manager, but I am a ____(fill in the blank)?  What do I love?
Your worth comes from who you are and what you give.  The real sign of success is the inner knowing that you achieved what you set out to do.
I felt so strongly about these principles that I made a practice of giving the book as a gift at graduations and weddings, much to the chagrin of my family, I suppose.  Money seems to be the last taboo subject, when it should be something we educate our children on early and often and discuss with friends and family what works and what doesn't in getting to financial independence because who wants to work their whole life?

I still pick up copies when I find them in used bookstores.  Read it and see if it doesn't put you on a different path too.

Published: 1992  Read: 1996, 2000, 2015  Genre: Non-fiction, finance