Review | How to Ikigai, by Tim Tamashiro

howtoikigaicoverYou know how sometimes, a book enters your life at just the perfect moment, and tells you exactly what you needed to hear at that particular time? I’ve previously had this experience twice: first in 2016 with Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, and then in 2018 with Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Stop Apologizing. And now I’ve got a third title to add to the list: Tim Tamashiro’s How to Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life’s Purpose. I borrowed the audiobook from the library, and it’s been my bedtime reading since January 1st.

The Okinawan concept of ikigai is deceptively simple. Ikigai, or your life’s purpose, can be found in the intersection between four factors: what you love to do, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you will be rewarded for. Pretty obvious, eh? But ask yourself: how much time do you actually spend contemplating what makes you happy, and how much effort do you actually put into incorporating it into your every day? The author also has a TED talk on the subject.

There were three things in particular in this book that resonated with me:

First, the Karate Kid example.

In The Karate Kid, when Daniel complains about painting the fence, Mr Miyagi shows him how the chore actually builds muscle memory for karate moves. Daniel is impressed and asks “What now?” to which Mr Miyagi responds, “Karate today, come back tomorrow.” Similarly, Tamashiro says, practicing ikigai is like practicing karate, and emphasizes the principle of “Ikigai today, come back tomorrow.”

I love this. First it’s a mantra that’s easy to remember. More importantly, it frames ikigai as a practice. Repeating karate drills and kata make them easier to perform over time, and it also opens up opportunities for doing more complex drills and katas, and for having a deeper understanding of the karate moves themselves. Perhaps because I trained in karate myself for years, this analogy struck home for me. It makes so much sense that contemplating and pursuing my life’s purpose is a skill I need to hone every day, rather than a far-in-the-future goal I can only dream about.

Second, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s pyramid acknowledges that we first need our basic needs to be met — basically, four layers of his hierarchy, which includes food and shelter, respect, etc — before we can find self-actualization. In Maslow’s pyramid, the lower-level needs are requirements for every day, whereas the higher level ones, including self-actualization, are nice to have after the lower-level needs are already met. Tamashiro posits that self-actualization, or ikigai, is actually just as essential an everyday need, and recommends mindfulness and meditation as a means to figure out your ikigai and incorporate it into your everyday.

I’m a big fan of Maslow’s hierarchy. In fact, one of the snags in this book for me is the (to me false) dichotomy Tamashiro seems to set up between pursuing one’s ikigai and unwillingness to give up creature comforts. For example, Tamashiro recommends taking an ‘iki-gap year’ to figure out your purpose, and says you may need to make sacrifices, but you can’t wait till after retirement to pursue your ikigai. He gives the example of quitting his cushy but unfulfilling CBC job at 51, and relying on savings and his wife’s salary. To his credit, he and his wife did agree that since he was the one who quit his job, he’d also be the one to drastically cut back on spending, so she wouldn’t have to sacrifice much of her current lifestyle.

But while I agree that living your ikigai shouldn’t be put off, taking an ‘iki-gap year’ is a privilege that isn’t possible for many. Even if I give up takeout and Starbucks completely, and move to a cheaper place, my reality is that I can’t afford to give up a full year of work. And for people who have dependants, the ‘iki-gap’ option is even less realistic. 

That being said, the idea that your ikigai should be incorporated into your everyday does resonate with me. Tamashiro’s examples of ikigai (to delight others, to care for others, to help others) are broad enough to apply to a wide range of situations, and certainly, living my ikigai would add meaning and worth even amidst the daily grind.

And finally, the story about the dragon slayer. 

Spoilers about the ending to the story, which is found in the penultimate chapter.

In this story, a woman is orphaned by a dragon attack, and makes it her life’s mission to slay that dragon and protect the other people in her hometown. The story begins after the dragon is slain. The woman, living comfortably among the rich rewards from her king, is feeling restless. She decides to slay another dragon, except there are no more dragons around. Soon, she encounters an old wise man, who tells her of a dragon hiding in a cave atop a mountain. He sends her on a quest to find that dragon, with two conditions: she takes a little orphan boy with her, and she reflects on her ikigai along the journey. When she gets to the mountain, she realizes there’s no dragon after all. But the journey has made her care for the boy, because they’re both orphans looking for family, and this makes her realize that her ikigai isn’t about slaying dragons, but about caring for others. 

I love this, because it’s so easy to imagine that our ikigai is a particular task or set of tasks. I was skeptical at first about how vague Tamashiro’s examples of ikigai tended to be, because obviously, who wouldn’t want to delight others or make others happy? But the story of the dragon slayer made it make sense for me. So often, the tasks that fulfill us and give us meaning are rooted in something deeper. And reflecting on what that something deeper could be opens up possibilities about the things we could do to live out our life’s fulfillment. This also makes it easier to incorporate ikigai into various aspects of our lives, even aspects that may not always excite us. And best of all, we don’t need an ‘iki-gap year’ to make it happen.

Review | Sisters, by Michelle Frances

SistersCoverI love books about sisters. Bring on the sibling rivalry, the family drama, the very complex bonds that connect them through life no matter what circumstances throw at them! As a thriller, and as a book about sisters, Sisters brings all the expected elements to the fore, and provides us with a fast-paced, entertaining read.

First, we have the pair of sisters who are polar opposites. Older sister Abby is super ambitious and Type A. She lives on a much more frugal budget than necessary, eschews her vacation days for extra pay, and works a high-power corporate job that allows her to retire at age 36. Younger sister Ellie has never done well at school, and has always felt the weight of her sister’s academic and athletic achievements. Having missed out on various activities due to being a sickly child, Ellie lives for the moment, using up all her vacation days as a teaching assistant to explore the world. Her credit cards are maxed out, and she doubts she’ll ever have enough money to retire as Abby has.

We also have the sibling rivalry. Due in large part of Ellie’s childhood illnesses, their mom Susanna has always favoured Ellie. Susanna often ignored Abby’s achievements to care for her younger daughter, and even when both sisters are adults, Susanna and Ellie share a bond that Abby can’t hope to penetrate.

Then Abby invites Ellie and Susanna over to her home in the beautiful Italian island of Elba. She shares a devastating secret about their childhood, a horrific accident occurs, and soon the sisters are on the run across Europe. And while on the run, Ellie learns something that makes her doubt Abby’s account, and raises the question of what the truth actually is.

Sisters is a fun novel. There are twists and turns throughout, and I wasn’t sure who or what to believe until maybe about halfway into the book. I loved the tension between the sisters — the little judgey comments from Ellie whenever Abby counted costs to the penny, the judgeyness on Abby’s part at Ellie’s flirting with a cyclist. The novel slowly reveals to us the sources of tension throughout their childhood, so that we gradually understand better why they have such a hard time getting along.

Despite the basic premise of them not getting along, there isn’t a lot of outright fighting between them. Rather, the tension often simmered below the surface, and came out in facial expressions and passive aggressive asides. I appreciated this, because I thought it felt true to the reality of their situation, which required them to work together, and also because I feel like many family tensions do manifest in these subtler ways. I also like how moments of tenderness came through at unexpected moments, such as one involving a blue dress, as these demonstrated how the sisters cared for each other, despite everything.

The only snag for me was that at some points, the twists, turns, and red herrings just tipped over the edge to silly. For example, around the halfway point, the grandmother shows up and makes a startling, super dramatic revelation. I’m not sure what that revelation was meant to do, as I don’t think it really added anything to an already dramatic storyline. But circumstances related to that revelation made me roll my eyes. It required too much a suspension of disbelief, and so removed quite a bit of the uncertainty I’d been feeling around plot elements.

There was also a running plot thread about a friend whom Abby kept trying to call, that seemed to serve no function other than adding a bit of tension. That plot thread never went anywhere, which I found disappointing considering how often this friend was mentioned in the first half of the book.

And finally, I’m not sure how I felt about the ending. On one hand, it was satisfying in the sense that justice was served. But on the other hand, I felt like it still left a lot of questions in the air, about character motivations and emotions. Those topics were touched upon in detached, clinical terms at other points in the novel, but we never actually hear the characters themselves process them. Given the complexity of these motivations, having the ending not even having the characters delve into these themselves felt like truncated catharsis, and left me needing more.

Beyond that, Sisters was a fun read, and a great book for an entertaining weekend.

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Thank you to Publishers Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Her Amish Wedding Quilt (Hope’s Haven 1), by Winnie Griggs

HerAmishWeddingQuiltWhen it comes to comfort reads, I find that Amish romances often hit the spot. They tend to be sweet and somewhat old-fashioned in courtship practices, which gives them the feel of a year-round, quieter take on Hallmark holiday romances. Her Amish Wedding Quilt is no exception — it has a bit more angst than other Amish romances I’ve read, and some moments that made me side-eye the hero for his actions. But ultimately, the novel provides the kind of sweet, feel-good love story I want in my Amish romances, and made for several heartwarming evenings.

Greta Eicher knows that her outspoken and impulsive personality will make it difficult for her to find a match. She dreams of someday marrying her childhood best friend Calvin Stoll, who has always loved her for who she was. When Calvin breaks the news that he’s in love with another woman, Greta channels her energy into helping his older brother, Noah, find a new wife and mother for his children.

Having had his heart broken in the past, Noah is determined his second marriage will be a business arrangement rather than a love match. His sole motivation to marry is to find someone to care for his children, not someone to care for him. Yet as Greta’s matchmaking attempts continue to fall short, Noah begins to realize he’s developing the very tender feelings he’s determined to avoid.

I absolutely loved Greta. She’s confident and independent, and she knows very clearly what she wants and needs out of life. She’s also a wonderfully realistic mix of romantic and pragmatic — she recognizes her own growing feelings for Noah, understands that he will not reciprocate, and makes some very level-headed decisions about how to deal with that. She’s also very capable with Noah’s children, a superstar in the face of medical emergencies (none involving the kids), and brings an adorable kitten named Lemon Drop into her family’s life.

Noah took me a bit longer to warm up to, only because he had a lot more emotional baggage to work through. He had to take on the paternal head-of-the-family role at a young age, which meant he had to make difficult decisions even when he was just a teenager. As an example from the Prologue, when Noah and his brother Calvin were kids, they’d nursed an injured fox back to health. Noah released the fox back into the wild when it was healed, which was the right, and practical, thing to do, but the decision broke Calvin’s heart. And Calvin’s accusation that Noah didn’t care about the fox or about Calvin’s feelings stuck in Noah’s heart all the way into adulthood.

It takes Greta a lot of love and nurturing to help break Noah out of his shell, and at times, it was downright frustrating to watch. It was hard at times for me to understand why Greta loved Noah no matter how many times he pushed her away, and there were moments when I thought she’d be much happier as a single woman working on her quilts. One major example is Noah’s jealousy of Greta’s crush on Calvin. For about the first half of the book, whenever Greta tried to do or say something nice, Noah would accuse her of only trying to get closer to his brother, which honestly I don’t believe she deserved.

I was also somewhat unhappy with how the novel treated Noah’s first wife. Their last few months together before her death were strained, because of a decision Noah made that his she didn’t agree with. She felt that Noah’s decision was unfeeling, which triggered all of Noah’s insecurities from his relationship with his brother, and I felt like Greta, the narrative itself, and some of the other characters all hinted that the first wife was wrong for her actions, and that she simply didn’t love Noah enough. The problem for me is that while I think Noah made the right decision, I can also understand why it would have hurt his first wife enough to pull away from him. And the book didn’t really tell us how Noah tried to rebuild his relationship with her.

All that being said, Noah is still very much a sweetheart for most of the book. He clearly cares for his children, and despite all his protestations, he also very clearly respects and cares deeply for Greta throughout the book. He has developed a hard shell around his heart, and as frustrating as it sometimes was, it was also really heartwarming to see Greta chip her way through it. I also love that despite her great love for him, Greta was never a pushover, and she often called Noah out on his behaviour whenever he did wrong.

Overall, Her Amish Wedding Quilt is a lovely, heartwarming story. Greta and Noah are wonderful together, and the author kept enough of Noah’s inner mushiness revealed throughout to keep us cheering for him and Greta to find their way to their happy future together.

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Thanks to Forever Romance for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.