The farmer reviews three business books

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When I first met the farmer, I knew he was not a normal farmer because normal farmers don't email bloggers for a date. But also, he gave himself away because he quoted Garrison Keillor to me. Then, when I thought I could not put up with him dumping me anymore, and this time would be the last time, just as I thought that, he started reading Moby Dick, and he got so excited about certain chapters that he'd read them out loud to me on his porch in the bright sun of long summer nights.

When I first started forwarding my mail to the farmer's address, he had to buy a larger mailbox. “Why do people send you so many books?” he asked. “Don't they read your blog? You never review books you like.” [This is largely true.]

During the tumult of our move to the farm I stopped opening the packages. But the farmer got curious, and he started reading the books. It turns out that he doesn't like them any more than I do. Here are my summaries of his summaries:

168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam

“Do you know you received three copies of this book?”

“Yeah. She's a friend. I wanted to make sure I got the book and I thought it may have gone to the wrong address.”

“What do you mean she's a friend? I've never heard you talk about her.”

“Well, I met her once for coffee. And she was nice. And our first books came out at the same time.”

“Oh. Wow. She does sound like a really good friend.”

“What did you think of the book?”

“I think it's really easy to have one kid.”


“You know how when one of the kids is with their dad, and it's just you and me and one kid, and it is so much easier to have one kid than two kids that it feels like we have no kids?”

“Yeah. Isn't that weird?”

“Yeah. But it's weird that she wrote a book about how to be productive when she had one kid and was pregnant with the second. The book should be titled “?You Can Do Anything if You Have One Kid.'”

I smile. I love the farmer—how he understands how hard it is to have kids. He understands that having two kids is two hundred times harder than having one kid.

This is a good time to link to the Time magazine article about having one kid. It's a trend. And it's good for your career — way easier to manage one kid and a career than two kids and a career.

Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, by Pamela Meyer

I would not have read this book because the bible on the topic is The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Barbara and Allan Pease. And I love that book. Also, Pamela Meyer’s author photo in the back of the book is a glamour shot, and I know what it's like to build a career on being good-looking. It's exhausting, and I'm sick of it, and I am obsessed with the idea of plastic surgery which is maybe messed up (I'm still trying to decide.)

I would never have written that, though. Because that would be a totally vacuous book review and you would all say that my blog is going downhill and you used to come here for career advice blah blah.

The farmer, however, has a more astute review of the book. He says, “I know this book is terrible just from the introduction. Look. Read this part of the introduction:”

My first job out of school was in the international department of a feature film company… I was shocked to discover that the industry was riddled with dodgy yet extremely common accounting practices… Fradulent behavior was so comon that most people seemed almost inured to it… I decided to accept a job at National Geographic Television and I had the good fortune to work in an extrmely honest environment. My collegues’ behavior was unimpeachable, and I had nothing but trust and respect for the people with whom I worked.

“See? She's a liar. And she thinks we are so stupid that we don't know. So if the book assumes I'm this bad at seeing peoples' lies, then I don't need to read the book.”

The Myth of Stress: Where Stress Really Comes from and How to Live a Happier and Healthier Life, by Andrew Bernstein

This book arrived in the mail during the time that the farmer was having to adjust very fast from his bachelor life to toys underfoot, arguments over food at dinner, and a bedtime that always takes too long.

The farmer says the book says that these moments do not need to cause stress because he can tell himself that this is what should be happening. There should be toys, because there are kids. There should be arguments at dinner because normal kids prefer processed disgustingness over wholesome vegetables.

“So we don't need to be stressed because this is what should happen,” he says.

I think it's a crock. I think stress is what intelligent people do when they cannot control the world.

The Myth of Stress leads to the farmer reading zen stuff about peacefulness. He is the rock and we are the water. This is what he says. And I think of the story of Passover, when God turned water into blood; I want the farmer to be as stressed about stuff we cannot control as I am. This is what a team is.

So I don't like the book. But I have to admit that the farmer has adjusted very well to our being in his house.

This is not to say life has been perfect. Do you see this table?

The first month of the remodel, all our stuff was in the garage. And then we sort of got used to it being there and we sort of started living out of the garage. And then the remodel got expensive and the garage got claustrophobic and during a fight the farmer threw the table higher than a pop-fly in kick ball and it shattered all over the yard.

No one is perfect. And the farmer hasn’t thrown anything after that. Which makes me like the book.

Epilogue: I also tried to throw something. I said, “What do I have to do to make you listen to me? Do I need to throw chairs?” And I meant to be as dramatic as he is, but I couldn't really get the chairs off the ground. And I hurt my thumb. So we are both focusing on things that will help remedy our problems: He is reading about stress management and I am lifting weights.

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  1. Dave Atkins
    Dave Atkins says:

    I love that review of the 168-hour week…but in my observation here, the trend is not for having one kid, but three. That would be a very different book but who would have time to write it?

  2. Erin
    Erin says:

    The last paragraph cracked me up. :)

    I am interested in the “Myth of Stress” book. I agree, I think that arguments over veggies, toys everywhere, etc. are just a fact of life when you have children. However, when you are in the moment, it’s hard to just chock it up to “this is how it is”. I’m glad that the Farmer is able to do that. Makes life easier.

    Good reviews, thanks.

  3. Michael Alexander
    Michael Alexander says:

    hey P, I need to give you a table, You and the farmer would love it. It would be a great addition to your new home and pretty indestructible as well. It would be a heirloom piece which is uncommon yet cool today. View some at my website: or you can see more in my storefront across from your office.

  4. csts
    csts says:

    Bless you, Penelope! What a lovely, bubbling, heart-singing, life-affirming post! You and the farmer and your two kids are so, so lucky to have each other. Thanks for sharing. You made my day.

  5. Karl Sakas
    Karl Sakas says:

    “…having two kids is two hundred times harder than having one kid”

    That’s an intriguing insight, Penelope — so many people say “having kids totally changed my life.” But it’s always from the negative perspective, that they’re exhausted and can’t focus on their career and can’t put as much energy into their relationship.

    Why aren’t tons of people writing, “Having kids made my life better!” and listing the ways?

  6. SuzRocks
    SuzRocks says:

    There are enough links in here to keep me busy for the rest of the day! I just found your blog this morning(apparently I need to come out from underneath my rock a little more often).

    I’m wondering if you would consider it good career advice to read your blog instead of paying attention to my grad school classes.

  7. Toni
    Toni says:

    I am adding your husband’s (I feel strange calling him The Farmer since I don’t really know him) quote about stress to my list of favorite quotes. Love it, and it’s so darn true!

  8. Kate
    Kate says:

    Love the dialogue!

    And yes, she sounds like she’s lying.

    I just went for a consultation with a cosmetic surgeon. If I go for it, this will be my third surgery. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

  9. Erica Peters
    Erica Peters says:

    It’s interesting… as a parent of two I find that our society has a lot of cultural rules about what you can and can’t say about your children. You can’t say how wonderful they are – that would be bragging. And you can’t say that you regret having them – that’s beyond the pale. So, what are you left with? Minor complaints about how the children cut into your day. When parents talk about their kids, that’s pretty much all we’re allowed to say.

  10. barbi
    barbi says:

    I blog about what happens when you pack up husband (a writer and critic who gets lots of free books) and three kids (could have been two but it was twins) and move to the beach – as in that dream of screw-it we’re moving to the beach – which, with one child would be infinitely easier to achieve, than with with two/twins, who in the first few days both showed positive on the mandatory Florida Tuberculosis test (“happens all the time, not to worry”), and a 4th grade teacher whose first words (to their face) were, “I don’t want them”. Apart from that we had fun and stress and life caught up (as in the old neurotic baggage, which in husband and my case also includes throwing things) end December along with the Christmas stockings.
    Now we’re back home (an old Pennsylvania farm, as it happens) but will be back for more “barbidoesmiami” end August when schools resume.

  11. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    Great reviews. So rare when a book reviewer isn’t looking for something clever to say about a book (to make their review review-worthy itself) but is more interested in expressing a well-reasoned opinion about the book itself.

    By the way, of all the things that people mistakenly believe increase their set point level of happiness in the long run, plastic surgery has actually been shown in studies to be one of the few that actually does (neither advocating for or against it here—just sayin’…). As a Buddhist, I believe there are other ways to raise that set point, but they’re a lot harder than going under the knife.

  12. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    It IS stressful, dear Farmer, to learn to become a team. And two of your team are minor children, to boot, which means the team has the adult-egalitarian component as well as the leadership-guidance component so necessary for the minor children.

    Peace, zen? Only in brief moments. Very few long stretches of serenity, I find in my life-with-kids.

    I would like to hear what you two will say when you look back . . . whether the career or the kids were your greatest achievement. Perspective reveals paradoxes!

  13. Diana
    Diana says:

    I expected to hate this post. I realize after reading it that I was just envious that the farmer reads books (aloud to you!) I want one!

    And yes, one child is infinitely less trouble than two. The same goes for golden retrievers. But who can resist such troubles?

  14. Ken
    Ken says:

    First–love the post. It’s hard not to be totally endeared to you because you are so real.

    Second–I’m not sure if any amount of research would convince me that my kids didn’t make my life better. More complex–absolutely–but there is a dramatic increase in the quantity of joy in my life directly attributable to them…and isn’t that the definition of a better life (more joy?)

  15. Dena
    Dena says:

    Your play-by-play of the renovation and the subsequent domestic happenings: “He is reading about stress management and I am lifting weights” are so much more fun to read about than the reviews. Although, overall great post.

    It is too cute that you refer to your husband as “the farmer”. I might start referring to mine as the carpenter.



  16. Socorro Luna
    Socorro Luna says:

    You’re the BEST! That is why the farmer loves you. Now he is reviewing books. What a guy! Let him open all your book packages and write reviews. His honesty is refreshing. He is the BEST, too.

    I have two children who are grown ups now. They had a happy childhood that I was part of. Raising them is among the happiest memories we all share.

  17. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Penelope, not to be a nit-picker, but… aren’t you trying to avoid throwing things? Hate to see that ten years of therapy go to waste at this point… you’ve made such progress!

  18. Marte
    Marte says:

    Please don’t encourage people to only have one child because it’s easy. You know what’s easier…none. Pick none or 2, having only one is cruel. I am an only child and HATE it. My parents didn’t mean for it to happen, it just did. I really believe that people who CONSCIOUSLY only have 1 child are mean and selfish. (Maybe in a culture when very few people have siblings, it would be better…). But people don’t really seem to care what is good for their kids anyways…let’s just make parenting easy. (Wait til we get older and we decide we want to make having to care for 2 elderly parents easier….)

  19. @TheGirlPie
    @TheGirlPie says:

    Exactly how I like my book reviews AND my business advice (and it soooo is business advice.)

    AND *just* how I like my endutainment:
    I adore your writing,
    hold my breath when the Farmer is caught in a photo (he’s handsome but I thought he’d be more comfortable with a “Carlton the Doorman” presence… I must be projecting),
    and as half of a long-time child-free couple, I’m learning more with every post since, back in my day (before fire) my (working) Mom said it was easier raising 3 kids than 1 since we occupied each other…

    You continue to move me.
    Many thanks,

  20. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I enjoyed the farmer’s reviews. Especially the 1st one.

    I have to say, though, that I think having two kids is easier than having one (in many ways). It’s such a beautiful thing to watch the dynamic between them and to see our family become closer each year. Both Tim and I look forward to having more kids. Chaos? Perhaps. But it’s a wonderful kind of chaos.

    Thanks for sharing your insights as always, Penelope. I like stopping in here to read your perspective.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Melanie, the parts of your blog that stick with me are moments with your kids. And, I am sure that while my kids do not make me, on balance, happier, they do make my life more interesting, and they force me to look deeper at my world. I like that.


  21. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    I’m an only child and love it. I know people with siblings who hate their siblings. Sounds like more of problem with your parents.

  22. Margaret Goerig
    Margaret Goerig says:

    So, what does the farmer think about plastic surgery? Just curious.
    I have always thought that I would never ever do it but I am learning in life that saying Never really is a silly thing to do, and what you said about it being something that women think about after childbearing is interesting– and basically means I still have time to change my mind.
    I liked that you included so many old posts in this one. Kept me occupied all afternoon and it was a nice look at where you’ve come from, which was an inspiration to someone just getting started in publishing her writing.
    And do you realize that you seem to have found the three things you hoped you might find in Madison?

  23. Jens Fiederer
    Jens Fiederer says:

    My wife and I have also thrown things – although it took us a lot longer (we have been married 23 years, but I would guess the “throwing” episodes were roughly 10 years in).

    One day I came home from work….my wife was on the phone with her mom, and two plates of spaghetti were on the counter. I picked a plate, grated some parmesan on it, and Jocelyn through the (cordless) phone through the window of the next room. I had picked HER plate instead of mine.

    She went outside to retrieve the phone (which was undamaged) and call somebody to repair the window.

    Some weeks afterwards I bought some paint that she had requested, and it wasn’t what she wanted (she often requests a product with n attributes, only n-1 of which can be successfully satisfied). Her reaction so irritated me that I threw a water glass near the same spot she had thrown the phone – but just far enough to the right that it hit the wall, dented it slightly, and bounced down to the carpet undamaged. Very unsatisfying. As I stomped up the stairs I unintentionally ripped the railing from the wall.

  24. Natasha Reddy
    Natasha Reddy says:

    …I absolutely LOVE the little unintentional, oxymoronic, ironic, so real still-life with sleek laptop, casual farmer (…looking like a movie star though!), trowel for planting, egg boxes, fancy table, cheap bic biro, and tomato plants sitting underneath just ready for planting just as the farmer’s expression seems to suggest some ideas ready for planting too….

  25. Marte
    Marte says:

    My parents are great and no one else knows how great of parents they really are. When they are gone I will get to remember this time or that time with…myself.

  26. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    My midwife used to say that our children are our greatest teachers . . . and I believe this.

    My own biological kids are now grown. But I must’ve had other lessons to learn . . . Late in the game, I took on a foster child with disabilities, whom I eventually adopted. It has been the hardest and the smartest–and yes, the most “interesting” (see Penelope’s prior post on lessons from LeBron James) undertaking of my life. Comes under the rubric: You cannot just sit back and coast . . .

    The old sociology books used to call this drive to mentor and to coach “generativity”. Penelope, your M.O. is mentoring/coaching, as well!!!

  27. Heather
    Heather says:

    I agree it is easier to have one child than more than one. I have three now. We had one child for eight years and then our twins came along last year. Things will never be the same. I look back to before the twins and realized I had so much more time back then.

  28. Monica Bussolati
    Monica Bussolati says:

    I don’t believe the farmer has found his second career here, but you had me laughing the whole way through.

    Here is a great new business book: Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected by Devora Zack.

    I am only halfway through and I love it!

  29. Ivy Lane
    Ivy Lane says:

    your writing is brilliant! I love your posts! isn’t adjustment and “team” making fun? ! I am glad you can have a sense of humor and even more glad you are taking us all on your journey with the farmer!

  30. neko
    neko says:


    “This is what SHOULD be happening ,,,” is a brilliant, Zen-like way of looking at Life writ large.

    Wacky families; busy careers; long frenzied commutes to work in traffic clogged streets: Rather than railing against the chaos & insanity, I just need to remember three things … 1) step back, 2) breathe, & 3) deal.

    Because, this is just How Life Is.

    The Farmer is a GENIUS.

  31. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    It’s odd that people would buy a book called “The Myth of Stress.” But people do seem to get sucked in by silly titles like the 4HWW etc. Glad to hear stress at meal times is normal. It certainly is in our house. Sometimes I just want to go and eat outside by myself to avoid the vile chomping noises, the endless needling of one sibling to another and the unecessary comments about how disgusting the meal I’ve made is. The best thing is to make the kids eat outside though – then the birds can clean up all their mess and I don’t have to hear the noises.

    I have 3 kids and a business. I do write a blog about it but it’s all so disjointed, confused and sporadic it’s hard to make sense of. Like life I suppose:)

    Haha, don’t think I will be sending you my book to review! Unless I called it Going Batty In the Quest To Have It All. But no one would want to read that… let alone review it!

  32. Sherlock
    Sherlock says:

    Penelope Trunk, she of the “aspirational” resume, recommends a book on how to spot liars?


  33. Katie
    Katie says:

    I love this post. Glad to see you’re posting more regularly. The Farmer has enough sass to keep up with you, and I love hearing his insights. He should keep reviewing!

    This was just perfect:
    “So we are both focusing on things that will help remedy our problems: He is reading about stress management and I am lifting weights.”

    The same thing happens to me when I fight like a man.

  34. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    Dear Marte,

    You think it’s mean and selfish for parents to have an “only-ONE” child? Then I’m sure your heart goes out to me too, cuz I’M an only-child. And so is my sister. We grew up too many years apart, and we’re NOT friends.

    So to make up for that, I got married and had NO kids. Now it’s like having a wife, AND a sister, living happily ever after.


  35. Jonha @ Happiness
    Jonha @ Happiness says:

    Clearly you and the farmer is probably one of the most perfectly matched couple I have ever seen! Not the usual perfect as people perceive, but you just know how to handle things together, which makes life better!

  36. shane
    shane says:

    This is the first article I am reading on your blog and I must say you have a very “poetic” way of writing. The words seem to be changing directions all the time, and yet somehow some kind of a definite meaning seems to arise in the end. You must be an interesting person to be with. I agree, stress relief books are not very helpful though they make for good reading especially when you are stressed, kinda gives you a false hope of managing life better by accepting the “what is”.

  37. Heather
    Heather says:

    “…stress is what intelligent people do when they cannot control the world.” Hmmm, I like that. I also like the way you write – you’re so honest that I just can’t predict what you’re going to say next and so, it’s exciting.

    I found you via Maria Killam’s blog. I love the story around how you two know each other. It’s a confirmation that we are indeed living in the best possible time in human history.

  38. Kandeezie
    Kandeezie says:

    3 kids. I have THREE kids. Career? Ugh. But they won’t be small forever and they don’t mind that I do not bake cookies. I just remind them that their mom is kick-ass and they’ll admire me later on, rather than demand food and expect laundry. So I completely get it about the one kid thing. That’s why I don’t take advice from anyone with one kid! It’s funny, they’re always the ones with the most parenting advice.

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