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Category Archives: Book Reviews

{Review} Essentialism vs. Yes Man

Essentialist or Yes Man? | The book dr. |

What to do when your personal philosophy hits a roadblock.

I’ve just finished reading Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I loved it the first time I read it, and got just as much out of it this time around.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the basic principle is this: we often get distracted and waste our effort by pursuing too many goals at once. We make a millimeter of effort in a million different directions, instead of choosing what really matters. Focusing all our energy on what matters means much more progress much faster.

This is the path of specialization. I know this experience well: when I read 20 books at once, I never really get into any of them and I never get to finish any of them. If I just read one book at a time, I really dive in deep and finish it faster.

This makes sense, and I can see some ways I can make more concrete progress by saying no to more things that I’m not really that excited about, or that are less important to me, in favor of the ones that I want the most.


One of the other books that I have read that is a huge game-changer is Yes Man. I recommend each of these books all the time.

The quick summary of Yes Man by Danny Wallace is this- a guy who was stuck in a rut and feeling depressed got jolted out of this space when he was confronted by a man on the bus who told him he said no too much and that he should say yes more.

He then went on an odyssey of saying yes to every opportunity that came his way for the next year and it completely changed his life. When I was reading this book a friend was reading it as well. We were so fired up by this philosophy since it was so life affirming. But it did give us pause when trying to make plans with each other. We didn’t want to force the other person to join us, just because of the yes.

So we started leaving a lot of voicemails that sounded like this: “Hi! I just thought you’d want to know that I’m going to the movies today. I’m going to see Fantastic Movie at 3pm at this theater. Just thought I’d let you know. Bye!” That way, there was no question and no required yes.

But as I was working my way through Essentialism, feeling really good about saying no more, I remembered Danny Wallace and the joy of saying yes.

Am I an essentialist or a yes man?

This sort of thing is enough to put me into an identity tailspin, so I’ve been cooking on it all week. Do I have to choose one? Can I have both?

I think I can.

Here’s why:

  • The message of both books is, at their core, to say yes to the things that really matter.
  • The reason Danny Wallace had to go big on the yes was that he had gotten in the habit of saying no to everything all the time.
  • The core message here is: don’t say yes or no without considering why you’re saying it.

What I am looking for is a philosophy that combines both of these ideologies.

Let’s call it The Essential Yes.

Anyone want to be a part of this movement?

Here are the principles:

  1. Life is meant to be joyful and juicy
  2. Going all in creates a better result
  3. It’s important to consider all your options before going all in
  4. Go big at the beginning- brainstorm every single thing you might want to say yes to
  5. Then choose what you want to say yes to right now
  6. Go all in on that for as long or as short a time as you choose
  7. Repeat
  8. It’s ok to change your mind or to return to step 1 at any time
  9. Enjoy the process

That’s it… I think the major thing is that we make mindless choices in life a lot of the time, and this leads to unhappiness. We say yes to things without asking ourselves if they are really want, so we need to strengthen our no. If this is your tendency, I suggest you read Essentialism. We might also say no right away, fearing we’ll be disappointed or get overwhelmed, so we stay small and hide from anything new that feels too dangerous. If this is you, I say go for Yes Man.

We’ll all meet in the middle on this method.

The point is to say yes to the things that matter and no to things that don’t.

Have a philosophy that helps you sort through these choices? Please do share below in the comments. I can’t wait to hear!

Until then, I’ll just be here dreaming of a podcast episode that’s a debate between Greg McKeown and Danny Wallace on just this topic. Heaven. I will do my best to make it happen…

{Review} The Border of Paradise

Like gothic novels? This is for you | The Book Dr.


“But to this day, I suspect I planted the seeds of my own suffering without any notion of consequence.” -Esme Weijun Wang, The Border of Paradise


It took me at least a week after finishing The Border of Paradise, Esmé Weijun Wang’s first novel, to feel I had gotten enough distance from it that I could write a real review.

Because, honestly, there wasn’t much I could say other than “woah” for that first bit after putting it down.

The woman can write, that is certain. Images in this book are beautiful, often enough to make you gasp. She takes the visual right to its sharp edge and then pushes it just a little bit further. It’s breathtaking.

Now, this is not to say this is all an easy and joyful response. There are taboos and then there are TABOOS. And Esmé isn’t afraid of any of them. This is the sort of book that will tell you where your line is. If you like to be pushed a bit and to learn a little more about who you are and what you believe, this is the book for you.

But there are other ways than just how we deal with the unexpected and shocking that make this an important book. Yes she chooses the unconventional, yes she puts her characters through a lot more than most writers would dare to. (And I am saying this having recently read A Little Life, so you know this must be intense)

This is really a book about what it means to be human under circumstances we can’t control. Whether this is because of our family, our culture, our health- mental and physical, or just the things that life has thrown at us, more people in this world than not get very little say. And as we watch the people in this book cope with their lives and hopes and disappointments, we are seeing a dramatized narrative of our inner fears and failings and how people try to keep things together as best they can.

I wouldn’t wish these lives on anyone, but I know I am a better person for having read about them. I can still see rooms from this book in my head, and I still wonder where the characters are, out wandering around in the collective literary unconscious.

Thank you, Esmé, for putting The Border of Paradise out in the world. You have made me think in ways I rarely have to, and I am grateful for that challenge.

{Review} How to Be a Woman

how to be a woman

I was so excited that How to Be a Woman was available at the library, I can’t even tell you.

The apparent impact of the Our Shared Shelf bookclub on the reading world is that the book that is chosen as the selection of the month disappears from all book sources immediately, never to be seen again. I feared How to Be a Woman would simply vanish into the ethers, never to be seen again if I didn’t get it right away.

So when I realized I had accidentally requested my hold at the Fairfax library, halfway across town where I had JUST BEEN half an hour before, I must admit I despaired. Standing in the holds aisle at the Los Feliz library, I nearly gave up.

But, my knight in shining armor appeared in the shape of the librarian, who told me he thought that book had just been returned to the branch. He’d go take a look in the back. He searched for a good twenty minutes, with the help of a second staff member, and I could not believe it, but they found it.

I knew this book was going to be good right at that moment.

Thank god for Caitlin Moran, who has bravely gone where no feminist has gone before.

She’s right that for a long time, women simply haven’t been represented in many areas of the arts and in public life. This is both because we weren’t participating in these areas, but also that we were too scared to, even though it was hypothetically permitted.

I am very much in favor of us participating and the progress this book has made, simply by being written by a woman who is funny, warms my heart.

Yes, we can be funny! This is less shocking now after Tina Fey began playing Sarah Palin and once stand-up has been steadily adding really funny women to its rosters over the past decade and a half. I am so grateful. This book has helped pop culture like Bridesmaids did a number of years after- simply by showing that things can work just as well when women are the focus.

I laughed so hard I cried all my mascara all over my face on a cross country flight back to LA. I think I scared the guy in the seat next to me with my convulsions.

It is a gift, this book. No- it isn’t perfect, but I prefer it that way. It’s human and honest and fair. And it isn’t man hating either. It simply questions the status quo where, in my opinion, it deserves to be questioned.

This is a definite yes from me. For any woman. You don’t need a specific life situation to enjoy it, but it is good if you’d like a laugh or to dig into feminism in a book that isn’t an academic approach.

I hope more writers follow her lead and take on the topic from this angle. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Anyone else read How to Be a Woman? Thoughts? Comments? Read any of the rest of Caitlin Moran’s books? Do share in the comments.

{Review}Learning the Art of Money

Art of Money Bari Tessler Book Dr

When The Art of Money galleys showed up at author Bari Tessler’s home, this is the photo her husband got of how happy she was to see them.

This is how excited I am about this book. It is. So. Very. Good.

***Full disclosure: I have known Bari for years. I met her when she was very early in her journey with this work and was still giving talks at Whole Foods about conscious bookkeeping in San Francisco in about 2005. I was hooked. I moved away from SF before I was able to take the course, but I did jump in in 2007 when I was in Los Angeles and the course had moved online. I even quit a job I hated because it conflicted with the course schedule. Ah, my 20s- the years of real idealism. I have been following the evolution of Bari’s work for over 10 years now and it just keeps getting better.

So of course I wanted to review this book. It doesn’t come out until June 14, but I wanted to get my mitts on it as soon as I could.

Thankfully, Bari was happy to get me a digital galley to read before my hard copy arrives and I sunk my teeth right in.

Let’s be clear- I was terrified of money in my 20s. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew the words you were supposed to use and that earning and saving were good and that overspending was bad. I even had a decent command of how to budget in the traditional sense, thanks to my dad’s work in finance.

But there is more to money than the technical parts. Money might be the most emotional topic there is.

I have done this work over and over and over since I first met Bari and first took her class. I was transformed the first time and I’m still working on it. Money has layers. It’s wrapped up in identity and ability and success and freedom and independence. Everything that we see ourselves as gets linked up with money.

So… the book.


I knew I would enjoy it. I knew it was going to be a great review of the concepts I had come to love: Money Healing, Money Practices (all the technical steps), and Money Maps that allow us to plan for the future.

What I didn’t expect? To be absolutely riveted. I could not put this book down. I was so thirsty for a review of money and for the gentle-yet-strong guidance Bari provides in the book.

Money is a force that is along for the entire ride. And the relationship changes. I was pretty clear about money in my 20s with a certain career path. But in my 30s it’s different. I had a plan in place for the single me, but now I’m getting married and live with a partner and that has created a whole new puzzle to work on.

After reading this book, I’m actually excited to have money dates with my man (one of the great techniques in the book). I feel jazzed to look at my numbers. In fact, we spent last Friday night having a hot date setting up YNAB so we can track our expenses together. It was a little nerve wracking, but with all the beautiful stories in The Art of Money, I was inspired to press on. (***This book is tracking method agnostic. If you use YNAB, Mint, Quicken, Excel, or a piece of paper in your underwear drawer, that’s your choice in this method, which is a BIG bonus in my book.)

There will be feelings when you deal with money. And it’s ok. If you take one thing from Bari’s work, please do understand that. There is no point when I will operate like a machine and have no emotions around my finances because they are so slick and smooth and run so seamlessly. I’m ok with that. In fact, I now enjoy the process of discovery that comes from looking at how I use money- how I earn it, how I save it, and how I spend it.

If you are someone who is afraid of money, this book is for you. If you are someone who loves money, this book is for you. If you are someone who has to use money for any reason, this book is for you.

And especially, if you are someone who is suffering because of money, I implore you to order this book. Help is on the way. You are allowed to want things to feel better and you are allowed to have a different money story than the one you do now. Even if you haven’t paid taxes in a few years. Even if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy. There are stories about people whose homes had to be short sold in this book. People who lost everything in bad investment decisions.

This is not a shiny happy money book. It is real and yet so inspiring.

It’s a little bundle of hope. I know you will enjoy it as much as I did. Look how adorable these two are reading it (Bari’s husband, Forest, and their son Noah check out the back cover)

noah and forest reading book galley

The only thing I’m sad about is that it isn’t out until June 14th so you can’t read it until after tax time. In the meantime, if you need some good money mojo and support, Bari’s website is an amazing resource. They’ve even done a podcast on money that is incredibly supportive as well as a web show of interviews of people talking about money. I find hearing other people’s stories makes my own feel relatively mundane, which is actually a great feeling in this case.

I haven’t talked about money and books much on the book dr., but I think that will change this year. I’ve been thinking about money a lot, and reading is an incredible resource to help you with it. Look for more on that soon.

What do you want to know about money? Any other topics you like to read about in that category? I’d love to know. Please comment below or write me at caroline[at] As always, you can chat about this post on the Facebook group and **spoiler alert** I’m planning to make it our book for July in the Secret Library Book club, which is available to all Footnotes subscribers. Join us!

(all photos courtesy Bari Tessler)

*** Full disclosure: the opinions posted here are entirely my own. I received a pdf of the book to read and no other endorsements and I’m not making any affiliate fee from this post.

{Review} Finding Humanity in Just Mercy

Just Mercy Bryan Stevenson book dr

Just Mercy follows the trend in my reading lately- I seem to keep digging to the center of where human life can break your heart. However, the beauty of this book is in the hope that it brings through the story of incredible injustice.

Just Mercy is more than a book about death row.

But if I was to explain it in a couple of sentences, death row and the death penalty would certainly play into the description. A lot of my friends are do-good lawyers, at least that’s what I call them. They’re smart cookies- they went to places like Harvard, but have chosen to work with those who need the help the most- those who need retraining orders from abusive partners, those trying to get visitation to see their kids, and those who have trouble filling out the forms for a divorce because it isn’t in their first language. I’m always inspired by the work my friends do.

I was pointed toward this book when I asked my Instagram peeps to recommend anything they’d read that they couldn’t put down recently. I was coming to the end of A Little Life and afraid that I’d never love a book as much ever again. (I still am, which is probably why I’m reading so much non-fiction lately. It feels like a different category) This one was suggested with the description “could not put it down. Could not sleep.” That was what I was talking about.

I see why they felt this way. This book is directly about life and death. And even more than that, it’s about morality and what we have empowered our legal system to do. I’m not going to make this a political review, but it does make you realize you can’t take a stance on the death penalty in the abstract once you read these stories. I have thought about this a lot, as one of my do-good lawyer friends has done a lot of prison advocacy work, including time working on death row while in law school. There are two sides to this (and probably many more, truth be told): how you feel about the death penalty if every time we could be 100% certain that the person being executed was guilty and then there is the death penalty with the justice system as it is.

Reading Bryan Stevenson’s book, and other books in the vein of revolution against any system or societal norm that isn’t working, is inspiring on a number of levels:

  • There is the David and Goliath storyline- that of a small, underfunded but passionate legal group making an incredible difference to hundreds of people who would have been executed for absurd reasons. This same legal group even reaches the Supreme Court numerous times with its work.
  • Anyone who needs to believe that hard work and a powerful dream can make something happen, this is your book.
  • Anyone who wants to make change and its afraid it’s going to be a long haul, this one is for you too. If you’re tired, burnt out, and crawling on the floor but you still so much want to believe that what you’re doing is worth it- check this one out.
  • History nerds will enjoy appearances by Rosa Parks, and exposes on bits of history many people (including me) hand’t ever learned about in American History class.
  • And if you like to get wound up about unfairness, this is for you, too.

I think reading Just Mercy has the power to make you a better person. There has been a lot of press about reading fiction as a way to increase empathy. I absolutely believe in that. But I think when a book really gets to the heart of nonfiction it can do the same thing. I’m sure a novel about any one of the cases discussed in Just Mercy would be moving and incredibly powerful. At the same time, there is something about the power of all of these stories together that gave me a new picture and a new depth of awareness of this topic that I wouldn’t give up. I think nonfiction can inspire empathy just as much, if done well. This one is.

Please do share if you’ve read Just Mercy in the comments below. What did you think? Did it make you think differently about anything? I’d love to know how it impacted you. I’ve thought about it so much since finishing this week. Before I start pushing it on friends and family, I’d love to get the conversation going here.

Also! The Secret Library book club is now up and running. We’re having a great time over there. Any Footnotes subscriber is welcome to join. We’ve just started on this month’s book, Playing Big, so if you’d like to join in, sign up for Footnotes and request to join the group.

One last question for you- have you read anything lately you couldn’t put down? I ALWAYS want to hear about it! Reply in the comments or e-mail me at caroline[at]book-dr[dot]com. I can’t wait to hear from you!


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