The Holidays are a great time to catch up on the books you’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. I love the opportunity to read for hours during this time — and enjoyed reading a few amazing books!

1. Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The author of When the Emperor was Divine created another beautifully spare portrait of Japanese American women, and truly one of the best novels of the year. Otsuka describes young women who come over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ in the early twentieth century. Traveling across the Pacific, they exchange photos of their husbands waiting for them. Once they arrive, they are faced with arduous work as maids or farmers, and struggle to learn a new language and culture. They have children and raise them as World War II descends — and are quietly forced into internment camps.

Otsuka’s uniquely poetic and minimalistic writing makes Buddha in the Attic difficult to put down. The women’s voices are collected as one, yet somehow each individual shines through. For example, “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing.” It’s a quiet and understated novel, but it’s force is stunning.

2. How Full is Your Bucket?,  by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, Ph.D.

I’m very glad that I finally read this important book. The central concept is highly intuitive (or even obvious): positive interactions make you feel better, while negative ones are draining. The detailed research go beyond this to illustrate how and why negativity is so damaging to our productivity, health, relationships and energy. At work, we are often faced with hours and hours of criticism and a lack of recognition — and this unthoughtful environment destroys our desire to work our hardest, innovate new ideas and commit to success. Rath and Clifton estimate that employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy $250 – 300 billion every year.

True to their philosophy, Rath and Clifton don’t let this bring them down. Instead, they focus on the positive and detail many practical ways to build healthier relationships and more satisfying work. I was struck by how this slim and quick-to-read book’s simple message has such tremendous implications for building a more enjoyable work life, more energetic employees and stronger relationships.

3. Off Balance, by Matthew Kelly

Kelly takes on the “work-life balance” myth head on in Off Balance, arguing instead that what we really want is personal and professional satisfaction, not necessarily “balance.” Just like tackling a major project, we need to approach our lives carefully and apply some sort of strategy to achieve all that we want to.We need to put a few guidelines in place to be the “best version of ourselves.”

Off Balance includes many simple, practical ways to learn what you value most. We can’t “have it all,” but we can have the things we want most — and approach these aspects of our lives with energy, enthusiasm and our best efforts. Kelly also challenges us to take the “time management” philosophy to the next level: energy management. By managing our “battery,” we’ll have the energy to devote to the things we really love, and feel fully satisfied in our personal and professional lives. I highly recommend this book for it’s practical strategies to achieve a more satisfying life, but it’s not really intended for someone who’s struggling to decide which career path is best or wanting to make a large change in their personal life. It’s best for someone who’s on the right path, but wants to make small changes to make the most of it.

After reading Off Balance and How Full is Your Bucket?, I’m struck by how these “business” books apply so poignantly to personal relationships. They intentionally blur the boundaries of personal and professional, arguing that the you need the same skills and passion to succeed in either. It’s fascinating.

How about you? What did you read over the Holidays? Anything you’d recommend?

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