Book Review: How To Be Fine

I had to take a break from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I normally alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction books, so after six novels in a row from the WP longlist, my brain was craving something other than literary fiction. How To Be Fine seemed like the perfect book for the occasion. Written by the co-hosts of the By The Book podcast, How To Be Fine is a reflection on the authors’ experiences living by the rules of various self-help books.

The book: How To Be Fine by Jolenta Greenberg & Kristen Meinzer
Genre: Non-fiction/self-help
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

On a technical level, How To Be Fine is very readable. The writing style is casual to the point that it sometimes feels like hearing a story from a close friend. As a fan of the podcast that inspired How To Be Fine, this writing style worked for me – but if I had picked up this book without ever having listened to an episode of By The Book, I might have found the writing underwhelming.

Structurally, the book is easy-to-follow. It is divided into three sections: what self-help advice worked for Kristen and Jolenta, what didn’t work, and the topics that they wish more self-help books covered. My favorite insights from the first section were Kristen’s philosophy that being an optimist and being an activist actually go hand in hand (she argues that as an optimist, she is hopeful that her activism will amount to something), and the exploration of what a good, meaningful apology entails. Despite containing interesting insights, though, I felt that the first section of the book was bit too long (Kristen and Jolenta detail 13 pieces of advice from self-help books that improved their lives, when 8-10 probably would have sufficed).

In the second and third sections (what didn’t work, and what the authors wish more self-helps books talked about), How To Be Fine really shines. In the section on what advice didn’t improve their lives – or in some cases actually had detrimental effects – Kristen and Jolenta explore how some books written under the guise of self-help seem more like covert marketing tools for authors trying to become famous “lifestyle gurus,” and how the term “self-help” has unfortunately been co-opted by influencers and consumerism. In the section on what advice they wish more self-help books included, Kristen and Jolenta talk about body positivity, acknowledging and accepting all of one’s feelings (even anger, which many self-help books apparently demonize), and the benefits of seeing a therapist. I thought that both the second and third sections provided excellent commentary on the limitations of self-help books, and that the third section nicely complemented the second by offering healthy alternatives to some of the unhelpful – or even toxic – advice that is perpetuated under the label of “self-help.”

Another thing that I appreciated in How To Be Fine was the authors’ transparency. Both Kristen and Jolenta seem to present themselves in all of their complexity. From eating disorders to financial struggles to cruel and unsupportive family members, neither Kristen nor Jolenta pretends to “have it all figured out” or be perfect. Because the authors present themselves in a way that seems authentic, their advice also comes across as genuine.

Overall, I really enjoyed How To Be Fine. The book is a quick and easy read that strikes a surprisingly nice balance between praise and criticism of self-help books. Additionally, the authors present themselves in a way that feels authentic and responsible (although I am likely biased by the fact that I listen to the authors’ podcast, which inspired this book). This book was the exact type of fun – yet not superficial – read that my brain needed after six literary fiction novels in a row.

The Four Agreements (and a blood orange upside down cake that sort of encompasses them)

The book: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

If you’re reading this post, it means that I finally finished reading The Four Agreements, a philosophy and self-help book by Don Miguel Ruiz. Ruiz believes that due to the pressures of society, we have blindly agreed to negative beliefs and perspectives that are not really our own, and in doing so we have made ourselves unhappy. Ruiz offers four alternative agreements, and promises that if we can stick to these four basic principles, we will become happier and healthier.

Ruiz’s four agreements are: 1) be impeccable with your word, 2) don’t take things personally, 3) don’t make assumptions, and 4) always try your best. Even though The Four Agreements is about these four principles, the book actually has seven chapters, plus an introduction. The first chapter is used to outline why we need the four agreements in the first place…but it actually had the opposite effect on me.

Ruiz spends the first chapter convincing us that because we have blindly agreed to the demands of society, we are living in a personal hell. While it is true that societal expectations can and do constrain us in various ways…I think it is going a bit far to say that we are living in a personal hell. Ruiz’s use of that phrase struck me as fear-mongering, as though convincing us that we are suffering in the worst imaginable way might make us more receptive to the advice he has to offer.

The fear-mongering introduction is unfortunate, because the agreements themselves are actually…well…agreeable. Being impeccable with your word, or having integrity and treating others as you would want to be treated, is a core tenet of many cultures and religions. Not taking things personally and not making assumptions are also great practices: living by these two agreements would almost certainly alleviate unnecessary stress over minor events. The final agreement – to always try your best, whatever your “best” may be in any given circumstance – is simple, yet exceptional advice.

But…even though the agreements themselves are generally good messages, Ruiz’s elaborations on the agreements sometimes seem misguided. An example of this: Ruiz defends not taking things personally so strongly that it almost seems like he is saying “be immune to any criticism.” But I think there is value in taking certain things personally. Well-intentioned, constructive criticism makes us better, so long as we are receptive to the advice and willing to change. To me, Ruiz crossed a line between not taking things personally and not holding yourself accountable for problematic actions.

Some other things that rubbed me the wrong way in The Four Agreements were: Ruiz’s victim-blaming and defense of abusive behavior (he says “If you have the need to be abused, you will find it easy to be abused by others. Likewise, if you are with people who need to suffer, something in you makes you abuse them”); his ignorantly idealistic claims that we should only do things that we enjoy, and do so without expecting any type of compensation in return; and – of course – his misunderstanding of how cancer works (he says that if you listen to somebody tell you “I see that color in your face in people who are going to get cancer,” then you will get cancer in one year).

If I had to summarize my thoughts on The Four Agreements, I would say: there is some good advice in there, but the book should be taken with a grain of salt. I personally felt that there were more harmful messages than helpful ones in this book, but I also understand that the messages that are helpful vs. harmful will vary from person to person. Read at your own risk.

The bake: blood orange upside down cake.

My original idea for a Four Agreements-inspired bake was to create four different things, one for each of the agreements. Unfortunately, time and finances both prohibit me from doing such an elaborate baking project right now. As an alternative, I decided to bake something that I hoped would be really good, and then share it with others. The action of sharing love and camaraderie with others through the sharing of baked goods seemed to encapsulate the good messages in the Four Agreements, especially “be impeccable with your [actions, not just] word” and “always try your best.”

I ended up baking something that I have wanted to make for a long time now: a citrus upside-down cake. Specifically, I made this buttermilk blood orange upside-down cake from Bon Appetit. Funnily enough, I forgot to buy buttermilk, so I substituted coconut creamer spiked with 1.5 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.

Substitutions and all, this cake is awesome! I actually like the base of the cake more than the caramelized blood orange topping. Not that the topping is bad – it’s just that the cake shines on its own. It’s buttery, soft, and ever-so-slightly tangy from the buttermilk (or in my case, the apple cider vinegar). I will definitely remake the base cake recipe again.

MWF seeking BFF (to take to cookie parties)

The book: MWF seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche.

My second Books and Bakes project was MWF seeking BFF, Rachel Bertsche’s true account of her experience trying to find a new best friend in a new city. As someone who lives on the opposite coast from my oldest and closest friends, I was intrigued by the idea of this book. Specifically, I wondered: could Bertsche’s story give me the perspective needed to make new best friends as an adult? 

I have to admit that I was skeptical of Rachel Bertsche at first. To start, her attitude at the beginning of the book struck me as excessively judgmental: she had so many qualifications about who she did and didn’t consider to be “friend material.” Also, she admits at the beginning of the book that she does already have friends in Chicago, just not best friends. I wondered why she was aggressively pursuing new friends instead of attempting to deepen the relationships she already had – were her current friends not “best friend material?” There was also an insensitive joke about Alzheimer’s disease that rubbed me the wrong way. 

Despite my initial reservations, this book turned out to be a pleasant and eye-opening read. Bertsche becomes aware of her judgmental attitude early on and resolves to be more open-minded about making friends. By the middle of the book, she develops meaningful friendships with women that she initially would have written off, and even reconsiders her notion of what a “BFF” should be. Toward the end of the journey, Bertsche stops fixating on what other women bring to the table and instead focuses on her own tendencies, acknowledging and improving on her shortcomings as a friend.

One of my favorite things about MWF seeking BFF was the juxtaposition of Bertsche’s journal-like reflections of her friend-dates with scientific studies on friendships and relationships. The presentation of research findings added depth to this book: Bertsche’s conversation with an authority on loneliness and the importance of relationships, for example, elevates the story from a journal about going on friend-dates to a reflection on how to find meaningful connection with others. It was these well-summarized snippets of social science research that had me deeply considering my own relationships: do my friends and I generally share similar values?, how can I become a better conversationalist and “click” with people more easily?who are my “fossil friends?” 

Overall, I enjoyed this book. My initial skepticism was occasionally re-sparked by insensitive or problematic comments like Bertsche’s proclamation that she would love it if her one of her new best friends happened to be black, or her use of the phrase “separate but equal” to describe keeping her marriage separate from her friendships. That being said, I still learned a lot from this book (in general, I think you can learn from most people, even people who are in some ways problematic). I realized how much I appreciate my long-distance friends and initiated conversations with people I hadn’t talked to for a while, and I also reflected on how I can become a better friend. I guess you could say that MWF seeking BFF took me on two journeys: Bertsche’s and my own. 

The bake: macarons with raspberry jam filling.

Early on in MWF seeking BFF, Bertsche attends a “cookie exchange” with a new friend: the premise of the event is that each attendee brings 3 dozen cookies, then at the party people socialize and eat and take home a variety of cookies. While Bertsche has to actively talk herself into attending this type of event (overcoming her biases toward moms in the suburbs and “Suzy Homemakers”), I would greet an invitation to a cookie-exchange with a loud and whole-hearted “YES!” I absolutely love baking, especially for others, and I am also a fan of bonding over food. 

So my bake for MWF seeking BFF is the 3 dozen cookies that I would bring to a hypothetical cookie exchange (note to self: host a cookie exchange). I went with macarons, because they are something that I’ve wanted to attempt for over a year now. I followed this comprehensive macaron recipe from Tasty and filled them with store-bought raspberry jam. 

This is how the macarons came out! I think they are definitely cookie-exchange-worthy.

When I say that I followed the recipe, I mean that I followed it to a T. I separated my egg-whites by hand, processed and sifted my dry ingredients, and did the “figure 8 test” to determine if my batter was ready to pipe. It was so much work, but y’all, it was worth it. Although some of my cookies cracked a bit on top (my oven runs a bit hot, and too-high temperature will crack macarons), these came out amazingly well for my first attempt at macarons! I will certainly make these cookies again, maybe to take to a cookie-exchange with a friend.