boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Self-Help

Heady approaches to midlife

Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters
By Anne Kreamer
Little, Brown, 209 pp., $23.99

Crazy Aunt Purl’s Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair: The True-Life Misadventures of a 30- Something Who Learned to Knit After He Split
By Laurie Perry
HCI, 284 pp., paperback, $15.95

Forty Things to Do When You Turn Forty: Forty Experts on the Subject of Turning Forty
Edited by Ronnie Sellers
Sellers, 256 pp., paperback, $14.95

Getting older has its perks. You might not stress as much, you usually have a better sense of who you are, and if you feel like you're floundering, there are more than a few quirkily helpful books that can come to the rescue.

There is that old chestnut that age is a state of mind, but in Anne Kreamer's "Going Gray," age is really a state of hair color.

Kreamer always thought she looked great until, at age 49, she spied her reflection and saw that her dyed brown hair made her look like someone she didn't know anymore. Yearning for a more authentic life, she stopped coloring her hair and began to investigate the phenomenon of hair coloring. Is life better au naturel? Should readers get back to their roots? Well, it depends. It should be noted that Kreamer stacks the deck with her back-jacket photos, one of herself as a dowdy brunette and the other as a snappily dressed silver siren. And when the married Kreamer, in an experiment, posted gray and dark-haired versions of the same photo on Match.com, she got many more hits with the former. Was this because gray locks made her more "real," or did men simply think she'd be easier to win? But while love is one thing, money is another, and despite Meryl Streep's luminous gray-haired magazine editor in "The Devil Wears Prada," the workplace overwhelmingly still equates colored hair with youth, drive, and talent.

Kreamer chronicles her own positive rite of passage into gray, along the way talking to style consultants and pro- and anti-gray-haired icons like Emmylou Harris and Nora Ephron. While the book is illuminating about the choices some of us feel forced to make in a youth-oriented society, something about its premise kept nagging at me. Why is it OK to choose clothes and makeup that make you feel good but not hair color? Boosting your shade can boost your spirits, and despite Kreamer's claim about expense, home coloring can cost as little as $9 a box (trust me, I know). Yes, we should be attuned to what really matters, but isn't the choice to be who we want part of what it means to be authentic?

Self-renovation can happen at any age. Laurie Perry's ebullient "Crazy Aunt Purl's Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair" is a hilarious best friend of a book. Not only does the sassily Southern Perry bare her soul about how she got up from under the rubble of a failed relationship, but she makes you feel that if she did it, why, so can you - and she will help you.

Perry's the mistress of the addictive knitting blog Crazy auntpurl.com, and her writing has the sunny tartness of a mint julep. When the love of her life left her to "get his creativity back" (translation: he moved in with another woman) Perry fell apart. She drank Jack Daniel's out of coffee cups, listened to way too much George Jones, and kept busy with her four cats. But when she was dragged to a knitting class, her life began to change. She got out into the world again, dipped her toes into the dating pool, and found she could be happy on her own.

Rather than trot out cliches about how to survive, Perry offers fabulous knitting patterns as self-help. Not getting flowers from dates? Knit your own. Worry wrinkles marring your looks? Knit a wide-brimmed hat to cover them. Life, Perry says, is like knitting - no matter what the mistake, you can always go back and make it better. If I were going through a breakup, this is the one book I would want, along with new bamboo knitting needles.

Forty may be the new 30, but it's still a milestone. "Forty Things to Do When You Turn Forty" is a casual and comforting collection of essays about the big 4-0.

A lot of the names weren't familiar to me, but the collection does include Oprah-anointed Tawni O'Dell, Amy's Bread owner Amy Scherber, and graphic novelist Jonathan Ames. Broken up into predictable sections like "Speak Your Truth" and "Master Your Money," these bite-size essays are, surprisingly, as addictive as pretzels. The advice is mostly basic: Call your friends, don't e-mail them; take up golf. Author Michael Ruhlman advises that the best way to see things in a different way is to either stare into the flames of a fire pit, or make a substantial and permanent change in your dwelling. And, of course, there's inspiration, like the story of Tina Grant, who "went backwards from a custom kitchen to food stamps" and achieved her dream of being a teacher.

While nothing said here is earth-shattering, there's a delicious sense of self-confidence, hope, and camaraderie in this volume, making it perfect for a 40th-birthday gift. The publisher also has books for 50- and 60-somethings, too, which just goes to show you that age is both a state of mind and a state of book publishing.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of eight novels, including "Girls in Trouble." She can be reached at carolineleavitt.com.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES