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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time

Posted: 28 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

WHEN I was a student in the 1980s, the future seemed so peachy. The conventional wisdom was that my generation would be the first not to work more than 40 hours a week. Indeed, we'd be only doing half of that – if we were unlucky. In the 21st century, computers would do all our work for us, freeing us up for the kind of bountiful leisure time denied to our parents and grandparents.

It turns out that computers became our masters. We became slaves to the machines. And, for a variety of reasons, we're working longer hours than ever.

Overwhelmed author Brigid Schulte cites stats that reveal today's working parents in the prime of their lives in the United States work about an additional month per year, as tabulated by hours, then their toiling parents at the same age.

I want to hug Ms Schulte – an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post – for highlighting the most pernicious disorder of our era.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time is a fastidiously researched – yet jargon-free – study of how top-down policies and societal pressures have shredded our leisure time into useless bits of time fragments, dehumanizing us and damaging the health of countless millions. 

Part pop-psychology book, part self-help guide, she's on the side of the "scattered, fragmented, exhausted" soul who chooses not to be a workaholic, and seeks a more satisfying work-life balance. 

The author talks to sociologists and scientists around the globe to illustrate how serious and widespread the situation is. Among many surveys, she a cites one of workers with families in which 90% report moderate to high levels of "role overload", or trying to do too many things at once. 

The depressing picture sprawls across socioeconomic boundaries. While poorer parents are overwhelmed trying to cobble together several part-time jobs to make the rent, affluent families are working insane hours, with a knock-on effect on their children's mental health. 

One of the most shocking statements in the book is: "The US is the only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee workers paid time off," Schulte notes. "Nearly one-quarter of all American workers get no paid vacation." Although this is an America-centric observation, it contains an important point. "Presenteeism" is today's virtue. 

By the way, this from Nickipedia, the biochemical analogue computer inside my skull that only forgets the important stuff. I like to remind people of the very first country in the world to introduce paid leave as a legal requirement for all employers. The country no longer exists, but is was the Soviet Union. Dubbed the "Evil Empire" by that uber-capitalist US president, the late Ronald Reagan, in my book – and Schulte's – there's also something evil about any society in which children don't see enough of their parents because they're always working. 

Which brings us to Scandinavia, a region that gets high marks from Schulte for its government-mandated family-friendly policies. Indeed, it's no surprise that the Nordic countries always top global-happiness surveys. A sound work-life balance – guaranteed by the state – surely has something to do with that. It certainly can't be the weather. 

One of the most thought-provoking parts of this book is the section on the aforementioned "presenteeism", in which Schulte chides employers for believing that there is a direct correlation between time spent at one's desk and productivity yield.

This is a fallacy. Voluminous research has proved that most people can only do eight to nine hours of quality work a day. After those productive hours, the company is paying the worker for "recreational browsing" or fantasising about the relationship between the boss and a medieval torture device. 

It not all the fault of our stone-hearted employers, though. The relatively well-off have to take some responsibility for venerating overwork and our perennial "busy, busy" state. It's a non-virture Schulte calls "busier than thou". 

So, what is the answer? Schulte makes it simple. It's up to you to decide if you want – or sufficiently value – "busier than thou" bragging rights. There are only 24 hours in a day, 16, if you include enough sleep – and sufficient sleep is a major prerequisite of sound physical and mental health. Prioritise what is important to you. 

As obvious as the solution might be, the lead-up to this conclusion is well worth reading through and ruminating over. It's a reality-check for the busy professional, and a highly readable one. 

A crucial message here, and especially close to home for time-crunched Malaysians, is that pure free time – uninterrupted, soul-restoring intervals of meaningful duration, when one can totally relax and marvel at the miracle of life – is much more precious than most realise. 

Another is that one of our favourite (but now well-aged) buzzwords, "multitasking", is grossly overvalued. One of the studies the author cites in her book has found that every one-minute digital interruption – a tweet, an SMS message, an e-mail – requires 10-20 minutes to return our focus to the task that it interrupted.

Our brains are not hard-wired to multitask. But they are highly amenable to being awed by life's myriad wonders or play with our children or shooting the breeze with cherished friends (not office frenemies) ... provided we make the time. 

Schulte has delivered a life-affirming and wonderful book that, unfortunately, won't be read by the very people who most need to heed its wisdom.

Bad Houses

Posted: 28 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

THE things you own end up owning you. 

This quote, from cult book and film Fight Club, is a scathing indictment of our modern materialistic culture. Bad Houses, Sara Ryan's first full-length graphic novel, takes a gentler, more reflective approach in addressing the issue, but in its own way, can be no less potent when it wants to be. 

Set in Failin, Oregon, a formerly bustling small town that has long since lost its sheen, Bad Houses is a story about the things we collect, the things we leave behind, and what those things say about us. 

The story begins with an estate sale where a person with no real bearing to the story is introduced to the reader through the objects she has left behind in death. We're never told what these things actually meant to the deceased, but to Lewis and his mother Cat, who are running the estate sale, they represent a financial opportunity – as they also apparently do to Fred, an aggressive antiques dealer who is an old hand at acquiring bargains at such sales.

To Anne, however, who shows up at the sale out of curiosity, the left-behind items hold both fascination and revulsion. With her mother Danica being a compulsive hoarder, Anne has an innate aversion to keeping things, and yet she is also strangely drawn to what these objects say about the people who used to own them. 

It is at this estate sale that Anne and Lewis meet, and this sets in motion a journey of discovery, of Anne and Lewis' present and their mothers' pasts, all linked in ways that only life in a small town can allow. The story ingeniously uses the very objects it questions to unravel how each of them came to be where they are. As each mother grapples with her own neuroses, their children both mirror them and simultaneously distance themselves. 

(A "bad house", Lewis explains to Anne, is a house that requires a lot of work before being able to have a sale – like that of a hoarder, for instance.) 

Carla Speed McNeil's artwork is a major part of Bad Houses' appeal. Her dynamic black and white illustrations bringing the characters' emotions to vivid life, particularly with Anne, whom McNeil depicts with large luminous eyes and an incredibly expressive face. 
She also excels at filling the panels with details, giving, for instance, Danica's house a claustrophobic air, but in contrast, creates a palpable sense of relief and freedom when Anne finds herself in empty spaces. 

Where the graphic novel sometimes falters is in its depiction of Anne and Lewis' romance, mostly owing to the weak development of the latter's character. While Anne is extremely engaging, Lewis remains removed, defined only by how others react to him. Perhaps this was intentional, but it also makes their relationship less interesting.

Danica, too, deserves more attention that the story gives her. While her relationship with AJ (whose mother lives at the assisted living care centre she works at) is intriguing, her character is never developed beyond Anne's impression of her. 

Yet, Bad Houses ends up telling a story that feels very familiar, and in its tangled relationships we see ourselves and the way we relate to the things we hold dear. Yes, the things you own do end up exerting a hold on you, but, Bad Houses seems to suggest, but you also imbue the objects you own with an unexplainable something. And which of those two forces ends up being stronger may decide whether you leave behind a "bad house" or not.


Posted: 28 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

THIS ghost story reads like it was meant to be adapted into an event miniseries. The flawed/troubled characters audiences will just love, the shadowy threat that comes upon a small Massachusetts town during a winter storm, the haunting loss suffered as a result of this, the Healing Time, and the sudden re-emergence of the Very Bad Things. 

And yes, I've capitalised the appropriate words in keeping with the big blurb on the book's front cover by none other than Stephen King, who calls it "the REAL DEAL". Which would be very true if he's referring to a TV deal.

It's not that Snowblind is not deserving of some praise or of being turned into a three-night television event, starring a mix of up-and-coming stars and veteran TV luminaries. Just that it plays things very safe.

If you like your scary tales brutal and edgy, or appreciate the didn't-see-that-coming excesses of (for example) Simon Clark or Brian Keene, well, you won't be getting any of that here.

What you will get in Snowblind are some nicely-sketched characters, some of them even likeable ones, and you will come to cheer for these folks, that they get through the nightmare. The last 50 or so pages are whiplash-inducing page-turners, as the story's principal players try to do just that. In fact, the whole of Snowblind moves at a fairly fast pace, with very few passages that beg you to skip past. 

The prologue tells of one dark, wintry night when something accompanies a severe storm to the town of Coventry. People die that night. Some even disappear. Bizarre and terrifying figures are glimpsed in the blizzard. And then, just like that, it's over.

Twelve years later, the survivors have picked up their lives ... mostly ... and are preparing for another cold season. As is customary of characters in spooky tales like this, they can sense something "not quite right" about the approaching snowstorms. Winter is coming, and all that.

Since that fateful night, any snowstorm is enough to give more than just temperature-related chills to the folks who lost people. This year, however, it's compounded by strange happenings – when people they know (and sometimes, don't know) come up to them and show an uncanny knowledge of events from a dozen years previously.

Struggling musician/electrician T.J. Farrelly takes notice when his 11-year-old daughter Grace suddenly starts talking like an adult ... and one eerily familiar to him, at that. Troubled police detective Joe Keenan, who witnessed several deaths that night, is suddenly taunted by a rookie cop who knows a little too much about what went down in the snow.

And police photographer Jake Schapiro – who saw a creature straight out of a nightmare claim his younger brother Isaac's life back then – is stunned when a young boy winds up in his home, talking and acting just like his slain sibling.

It's obvious from these and other similar scenes playing out in town that the spirits of those claimed by the storm have somehow come back. As their purpose becomes clear, and the nasty stuff portended by their return starts to happen, the book picks up a bit and barrels toward that page-turning finale mentioned earlier.

I am only familiar with Golden's work from his Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Hellboy novels – oh, and his novelisation of the Peter Jackson King Kong movie – but Snowblind just didn't grab me enough to put me on to his other stuff. 

It's half a fully-realised story; its key characters, flawed and broken as some are, make you actually give a darn about them, and that's usually the hardest part. But it doesn't go anywhere with its core premise, or present anything truly horrifying. Rather than dash out into the darkness and lead the reader on a scary trek into the unknown, it seems to prefer the secure confines of familiar (and thus predictable) ghost yarns.


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