mattgalligan:

There is little more that I am excited about than the Dorito-shell taco.

mattgalligan:

There is little more that I am excited about than the Dorito-shell taco.

(Source: gq)

My Two-Books-a-Month Resolution

It’s January, which means it’s resolution time. I usually only make three resolutions, zero of which involve getting fit (I like poutine too much), but at least one of which usually involves a hobby. One of my biggest hobbies is reading, and in early 2011 I was inspired by a post from my friend Dave Fleet outlining his reading challenge. I’ve always loved reading, but I find when I’m busy books fall to the wayside. So one of my New Year’s Resolutions last year was to read two books per month in 2011. 

I passed with flying colours (I read 29 books in total), which is quite possibly the first time anyone successfully completed a New Year’s Resolution. So how did I do it? Well, one of my secrets was being unemployed for the month of August, though I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone else :) Being off work for a month was a great way to catch up on reading (I read about 9 books in August/September alone). But I also joined two book clubs mid-2011, which guarantees I’ll read my 24 books going forward. I’ve absolutely LOVED being a part of these book clubs, which may as well be called Cheese Club, Wine Club or Talk-About-The-Bachelor Club. I also decided to spend a lot of my free time reading instead of watching TV, which has really helped, though I’m watching The Biggest Loser as I write this so I’m not sure I’m completely succeeding on that front. Add in reading on the beach, the subway, my couch, and pretty much anywhere else I can grab 5 minutes. 

Here’s a list of the books I read in 2011, divided by category, along with a short review. Happy to discuss any of my picks at length in the comments! 

Fiction

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts - Sarah Prevette’s favourite book, which she gifted to me last Christmas. It took me a while to get through the almost-1000 page epic about an ex-convict living in India, but it was worth it. Great book, but still not as good as my favourite book of all time, Rohinton Mistry’s India-in-the-70s epic A Fine Balance. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan - Recommended in pretty much every publication out there, I thought I’d love this book. Instead I was neutral. I didn’t love it or hate it - I liked that each chapter was from a different character’s perspective, but hated the gimmicks like the section comprised solely of a PowerPoint presentation. Great for rock music junkies though.

One Day, David Nicholls - Loved, loved, loved the story of Emma and Dex. Refuse to see the movie, since the book was just so great. A perfect romantic novel, and I won’t spoil it but I bawled my eyes out at the end. For a good hour or so. To the point that I think Kev thought I was seriously deranged. Also great for book club discussion.

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett - 2011 was the year I discovered Ann Patchett. An amazing writer with lyrical prose, she weaves fantastical, imaginative stories around memorable characters. This story of hostages bonding with their captors was a true pleasure to read. 

State of Wonder, Ann Patchett - Another Patchett book, and another mainstay on best of 2011 lists. This story of a pharmaceutical researcher deep in the Amazon jungle was unbelievable at times, but you don’t care because you’re spending most of the book trying to imagine their surroundings. Implausible yes, easy to put down? No way.

Room, Emma Donoghue - One of the most unique concepts for a novel I think I’ll ever come across. A haunting tale of a kidnapped young mother and the son who believes the entire world exists in the one room that is his prison. Couldn’t put it down for the first half, and then the pace slows, but still one of my favourite reads of the year. 

The Help, Kathryn Stockett - You’ve probably either read the book or seen the movie, so I’m sure you’ll agree that between Aibileen’s stoic determination as the main character, Celia’s flighty housewife, and Minny’s sassy maid, this book was a gem. And it’s rare, but in this case the movie was just as good as the book. But don’t skip the read - it’s much more detailed and hilarious/touching.

Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay - The concept is chilling. Nazis in Paris clear out all the local Jews into concentration camps, and one little girl locks her brother in a bedroom cupboard while swearing she’ll be back for him. You know his fate is doomed, but you keep reading in earnest all the same. A fantastic and equally horrifying read (and historically accurate to boot).

Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson - Probably my favourite read of the year (I’ll probably say that about five times). About an amnesiac who wakes every day not knowing who she is, and who must piece together the mystery of her life - think 50 First Dates but a thriller. Chilled me to the bone, and couldn’t put it down. I woke Kev up at 3am to tell him the entire plot in detail, and then forced two of my friends to read it. It was that good. 

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins - I’m not a Harry Potter or Twilight fan, so I was extremely wary of these teen thrillers. But the concept - teenagers fight to the death in a future colony located North America stands now - was too good to resist. I devoured all three books, although the first two are way better than the conclusion. I don’t know what my favourite part was - Katniss Everdeen’s strength, the love triangle, or the view of the dystopian society. Can’t wait for the movie version in March.

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman - Another of my favourite reads of the year. About an English-language newspaper in Rome, and the cast of characters who are involved. Standout chapter is from the Corrections editor - his examples of the paper’s past mistakes are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Charming and delightful read (yes, delightful).

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer - The story of young Oskar dealing with his father’s death on 9/11 is touching, imaginative and at times hilarious. This boy genius is one of the most likeable characters I’ve come across in a while, though I could have done without the lengthy (and odd) backstory of his grandparents. 

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton - This book was one of those stay-up-until-2am, can’t-put-it-down books that I absolutely loved. The century-spanning family saga-cum-mystery novel is rich with detail about 20th century England, and the end is so satisfying that I wasn’t even sad it was over…I just went to the bookstore to get her other books right after I closed it. 

We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver - An amazing, amazing book from the perspective of a school shooter’s mother. You know from his birth that Kevin grows up to be a monster, but a heart-wrenching twist at the end just makes you feel for his mother even more. Nature vs. nurture indeed. 

*Warning: the next book is embarrassing and I don’t care. 

Sweet Valley Confidential, Francine Pascal - I was absolutely addicted to the Sweet Valley series when I was a kid, and wanted to grow up to have Jessica’s love life and Elizabeth’s smarts. Needless to say I read this as soon as it came out, and it was just as satisfying as I thought it would be. And I’m not even sorry…and I still like to think I have a little Jessica & Elizabeth in me.

Fresh Lessons, Ellen Sussman - An average read about three people taking French lessons in Paris. Not exceptional, not horrible. Read it on the beach in Mexico, and it was light and fluffy enough for poolside entertainment.

Heart of the Matter, Emily Giffin - I promised myself I would stop reading chick lit sometime after the 7th Shopaholic book. So when someone picked this I was wary, but it was actually a good read. About two suburban women who fight over the same man - I found myself taking the side of the mistress, which provided for great book club discussion. 

Where are You Now? by Mary Higgins Clark - I tend to avoid books which display the author’s name in font twice the size of the book’s title (see: John Grisham). So when this was selected for book club I begrudgingly downloaded it on my iPad. But it was a breezy, engrossing read - I love a good mystery, regardless of who wrote it. 

Biography/memoir

Unbearable Lightness, Portia de Rossi - This book makes you realize that all your eating and weight issues are trivial compared to people who have severe diseases like bulimia and anorexia. It’s an eye-opening look that even for celebrities, appearances can be deceiving. 

Bossypants, Tina Fey - Who didn’t read this book in 2011? It was on pretty much every top 10 list, and for good reason. It’s a hilarious (though random and with really no complete narrative) look at Tina Fey’s upbringing. I laughed out loud about 732 times, especially at the transcript from her Sarah Palin SNL sketches. Perfect summer cottage reading.

Wanderlust, Elisabeth Eaves - I started this book on the plane home from Italy, as I was lamenting the end of my dream vacation. I loved this travel memoir because it allowed me to live vicariously through the author’s jaunts around the globe, while also affirming my belief that she like a little bit more adventure than I do on my vacations. Oh, and the men - you’ll have to read it to find out…

Business

Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh - I asked the Zappos CEO to do an interview for Sprouter and Hsieh responded that all the answers to my questions would be in his book. So I read it, and then devised an entirely new set of questions. Loved this book for two reasons: it explains why culture is so important to a company’s success, and it shows how even successful millionaire entrepreneurs will never stop thirsting for startup success. I also love that he wrote it himself instead of hiring a ghost writer. 

The Now Revolution, Amber Naslund and Jay Baer - Review of this book here on my blog. Great for big companies trying to integrate social media into their 2012 plans.

Personal Finance

Note: I used to be really bad with money and am now as anal about personal finance as a reformed smoker is about other people’s cigarettes. I devour personal finance books, blogs and TV shows.

The Automatic Millionaire, David Bach - I read this on the plane to the Dominican Republic and by the end I was convinced that I was going to be a millionaire by retirement. I’m still convinced - it gives you amazing, easy ways to pay yourself first and take temptation out of the equation.

The Wealthy Barber, David Chilton - my mom had bugged me to read this for years, so I finally did. Pretty basic (both the principles and the writing), but interesting to see how nothing had changed since the ’80s. 

The Wealthy Barber Returns, David Chilton - I didn’t love the first one, so I don’t know why I felt compelled to read the sequel. As it turns out, it was a mistake - while the first one had a narrative tying it together, this book was a random collection of Chilton’s thoughts, and other than a few relevant points about today’s economic climate, wasn’t very useful. Sorry if you’re reading this David…

Debt-Free Forever, Gail Vaz-Oxlade - I have an obsession with this Canadian money guru - I watch her shows Princess and Til Debt Do Us Part religiously. Didn’t love the book since I don’t have much debt (which is better than the alternative), but it would be a great read for someone with a pile of unpaid bills.

—-

As for 2012, I’ve already read one book (The House at Riverton by Kate Morton) and started my next one, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, tonight. You can also follow me on GoodReads to see what I’m reading throughout the year! 

And in case you’re wondering, my top favourite books in no particular order were The Imperfectionists, Before I Go to Sleep, Room, State of Wonder, Sarah’s Key and The Forgotten Garden.

How to reward your company during the holiday months

Black Friday and Cyber Monday came and went, and the holidays are fast approaching. That means a few things are guaranteed – busy malls, festive parties, and holiday cheer in the office. The holidays provide a great opportunity to reward your team for a year of hard work. Here’s how to thank your team during the holiday season – hopefully it keeps them focused on the tasks at hand right up to Christmas Eve:


Throw a holiday party, no matter how small. As soon as the snow starts falling it’s inevitable that you’ll get a barrage of holiday party invites in your inbox. Most of them involve hundreds of people, open bar, food passed on silver trays, and hip venues. But when your team is small and resources are limited, it’s not always possible (or plausible) to throw a holiday bash. If you have a small team consider having a team holiday night where you have dinner and drinks, or do something fun in your city like catch a comedy show or sporting event. It’s a great way to celebrate and make employees feel valued without spending thousands of dollars on a holiday bash. Just remember to offer employees a taxi ride home if they’re planning to have any drinks.

Open your office doors. An inexpensive way to celebrate the holidays with clients and employees is to throw an office open house. By spending a little bit of money on drinks and snacks, you can plug in your iPod and have people drop in and out all night. It’s a great chance to talk about 2012 planning with clients, thank your loyal customers, and give your employees a chance to mingle and celebrate. If your employees have children, consider holding it on a weekend and giving away toys.

Get creative with employee gifts. One advantage of having a smaller staff is the ability to get creative with holiday gifts. You don’t have to buy a branded umbrella or coffee mug; rather you can buy things specific to your employees’ tastes. Last year Sprouter’s founder Sarah Prevette decided to get our three employees her version of Oprah’s Favourite Things. She gave us each a tote bag filled with things she loved and knew we would too – a season of our favourite TV show; her favourite wine and glasses; her favourite book; etc. It was thoughtful, creative, and I still use many of the items today (especially the season of Glee).

Give a chance to give back. Many employees have favourite charities or causes, and the holiday season is a perfect time to support them. Since an employee charity drive won’t necessarily raise thousands of dollars with a small staff, give the gift of time instead. Give employees an afternoon off to volunteer with their favourite charity, or plan a team outing together at the local food bank. Or take a different approach and attend a holiday charity event like HoHoTO as a team – you can support a great cause (the Daily Bread Food Bank) while getting down.

Give employees flexible time off. The holiday season is busy with family get-togethers, vacations and events. With a smaller business there’s an opportunity to be flexible with the time you give employees off. Consider shutting down the office between Christmas and New Years and allowing employees to work from home for specific days, or give each person a certain number of days off during the holidays and let them plan accordingly. There’s no better gift than the gift of a lazy day by the fire drinking eggnog.

The holiday season doesn’t mean you have to shut down for weeks at a time, it just means you have to respect employees’ personal commitments and schedule. Find a way to balance time off with company priorities, and above all remember that at a small business your team is everything, so thank them in any way you can.

 

This post is brought to you by American Express Canada. Check out their new Amex for Business Canada Facebook page here for the latest news, information and resources for Canadian small business owners.

Image credit: thevibeagency.wordpress.com

Theme created by David Summerton.