Wednesday, 10 February 2016

On going about your own life when a loved one is suffering: W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”

After I spent some time memorising Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, I decided to move on to learning W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” by heart.

There are a few reasons for this. One, it’s probably my favourite poem by Auden: I first encountered it during my second year of university, and the poem and my lecturer’s explanation of the consoling nature of some of Auden's poetry after 9/11 stuck with me.

The poem was written by Auden in December 1938, after Kristallnacht on 9-10 November had shattered shop and synagogue windows, hopes, and lives in Nazi Germany.

The poem describes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting by Pieter Brueghel, and it echoes how the old master depicts Icarus falling from the sky while everyone else, involved in other things or just simply not wanting to know, “[turn] away / quite leisurely from the disaster” and go about their day.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, now seen as
a good early copy of Pieter Bruegel's original.

When we are suffering, I think it might feel a bit like this: that others are now turning away from us, even if that isn’t entirely the case.

And when others are suffering, perhaps we sometimes feel ourselves turn away slightly too.

The poem begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position; how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

I think Auden encapsulates something timeless here: that common human fear that something bad will suddenly happen at some meaningless time of day, when everything else is progressing as normal. And the concern is entirely grounded.

Perhaps the answer here is nurturing a greater sense of mindfulness, both in paying attention to the good stuff when life is going well, and noticing those that are suffering around us. It could also help us to approach harder times in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us, but rather helps us to take in all aspects in a more present way.

Will Schwalbe mentions the poem in The End of Your Life Book Club, a non-fiction biographical book I’ve mentioned so many times before. While his mother was facing cancer, he described how he felt like the “someone else” who was “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” in Auden’s poem. As he writes, “Mom was suffering; I was going on with my life”.

Yet “Musée des Beaux Arts” somehow helped him to acknowledge this feeling - that it’s the normal response to feel like this - which, perhaps, may have allowed him to be more present with his mother. Finding simple understanding of our own feelings or fears in fiction can be a great help.

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

How to sustain creative thinking and projects when you have a 9 to 5 job

When you're making an effort to be more creative, or sustain an ongoing creative project such as a blog or a book draft, work can get in the way.

I'm working for a software company in Switzerland at the moment, and while I'm spending the day writing, this isn't doing-it-because-I-love-it creative time.

When I get home I feel too tired to write, and on my lunch break there are so many other things I want to get done. Often it comes down to choosing between downtime or creative time. And lately I've chosen downtime.

I don't think this is a bad thing: I know I need to look after myself.

So I don't think that the solution is forcing creativity when I want to rest. Rather, it should be about reframing my routine to best nurture the two. 




I know I'm most creative in the mornings, and I used to love waking up at crazy hours to run, read, and prepare for exams when I was in secondary school.

It's easy to put off waking up early because you didn't get to sleep at a decent time the night before, but I'm going to do what I know works for me: setting my alarm, waking up then, and giving my body clock a chance to adjust to that. Sure, it'll involve a bit of tiredness at first, but then at least the worst will be over.

And it helps to think of creative minds who have also sustained a creative project around 9 to 5 work after deciphering what works best for them. A great place to start is by reading the oft-recommended Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.

T.S. Eliot joined the crowd crossing London Bridge each morning to reach his job at Lloyd's Bank

“I am sojourning among the termites,” Eliot wrote to Lytton Strachey. He would later draw on this scene for the Unreal City portion of The Waste Land, one of his most famous poems.

After Eliot had worked at the bank for five years (and was aged thirty-four), some of his literary friends, led by Ezra Pound, invented a scheme to free Eliot from his employment so he could focus on writing. They would create a £300 annual fund by soliciting £10 a year from thirty subscribers.

Wallace Steven's day job nurtured, rather than stifled, his creativity as a poet

Wallace Stevens, the American Modernist poet, woke at 6:00 every morning to read for two hours, arrived at the office at 9:00 A.M. sharp and left at 4:30. He also used an hour-long walk on his lunch break to compose poetry.

I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me [...] It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life. I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about about money.

Philip Larkin worked as a librarian for almost his entire adult life

Like many writers, Larkin realised early on that he would never be able to make a living from his writing alone:

I was brought up to think you had to have a job, and write in your spare time, like Trollope.

He did wonder what would have happened had he dedicated his time to write full-time, but he thought that two hours of composition in the evenings, after dinner and the dishes, was plenty: “After that you’re going round in circles, and it’s much better to leave it for twenty-four hours, by which time your subconscious or whatever has solved the block and you’re ready to go on.”

Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after work, sitting at the kitchen table in his Manhattan apartment


I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years [...] I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.



Find out how to best insert creativity around your work and commitments. Maybe you work best in the mornings or late at night. Perhaps your full-time work is currently consuming - or diverting - all of your creative energy. 

Maybe these could help to kindle your creativity:
  • a daily long walk, perhaps after lunch or in the evening
  • early morning or late night work sessions
  • the ritual of a coffee or two (far preferable to the frequent appearance of amphetamines in Daily Rituals)
  • dedicated time to reading books and articles that inspire you
  • a chance of scenery, whether it's time spent outdoors or exploring a new place


Have a proper think about it. Do what works for you.







Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Not always accurate, but rich and engaging nonetheless: The BBC adaptation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The cast of 2016's BBC1 production of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Photograph: Mitch Jenkins/BBC

The first episode of Andrew Davies' reworking of Tolstoy's War and Peace has just aired on BBC One, as one of six one-hour episodes. My verdict? I enjoyed it, much more than I expected.

The novel's famous opening scene, a soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna, gets the series off to a promising start. Gillian Anderson makes a great Anna Pavlovna, and Paul Dano as Pierre Bezukhov must be my favourite casting success thus far.

Andrei Bolkonsky comes across as cold, even sneering, as he wanders (struts, even) around a few parties before leaving his pregnant wife, Lise, at the Rostovs before heading off for war. The Rostov family scenes, however, are just as warm and welcoming as expected.

Count Rostov brings much life and soul to the adaptation (especially through his dancing), and rightly so. Natasha Rostova does not look thirteen years old by any stretch of the imagination, nor do the other children at the Rostov name day party look their respective literary ages. Although, as the scene comes with kisses between cousins, perhaps this is the BBC playing safe.

One of the most contentious aspects of the reworking is all of the sex in it, and while the flash of nudity in Anatole's party (you know, the one with the bear tied to the policeman) is pretty excusable, the storyline of incest between Hélène Kuragin and her equally malicious brother, Anatole, is bound to get people talking. But, as Davies admits, that's the idea really (he felt obliged to add what Tolstoy 'forgot'). In the novel, here's where Pierre hints at the rumour of something going on between the siblings:

she’s stupid. I used to say that myself – she is stupid. [...] This can’t be love. No, there’s something disgusting about the way she has aroused me – it’s forbidden fruit. Somebody told me that her brother, Anatole, was in love with her, and she with him, and there was a bit of a scandal, and that’s why Anatole was sent away. Hippolyte’s another brother… And her father is Prince Vasily… It’s not good. (220)

The Kuragin siblings cuddling in bed seems to take things a little too far, but much more is probably yet to come from Davies.

The episode closes with Pierre, newly rich and now titled Count Bezukhov, sitting in shock as all around him celebrate the news - unbeknown to him - that he is engaged to the cold and scheming Hélène Kuragin. In the novel, Pierre has almost no say in the matter of his engagement, but Davies takes this further and accelerates the scene–to a laughable and ridiculous level. As Pierre deliberates, requests time to think, and notices his instinct telling him that Hélène is bad news, Vassily loudly congratulates the couple on their engagement, and Hélène joyfully kisses Pierre.

The story isn't always entirely faithful to the original, but I'm so glad that the BBC are bringing new readers to War and Peace and fuelling interest in Tolstoy. After episode one, I'm happy that it's filmed well, acted well, and with a great cast. One final note: St Petersburg in winter is simply beautiful.

If the BBC reworking has fuelled your interest in Leo Tolstoy, why not...

Read my tips on getting started reading Tolstoy's War and Peace 
Take a look at the reasons why I love War and Peace (and why I hope you will too)
Find out how reading War and Peace can help us to find direction in life
See how Pierre Bezukhov thinks that being knocked off course is "only the start of something new and good", or get some lessons on failure from him
Glance at Leo Tolstoy's favourite books from each stage of his life


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

8 books to add to your Kindle this winter (featuring deals, award winners, and simply great reads)


You can’t beat a proper paperback, but sometimes downloading a book on your Kindle just makes more sense.

If you’re travelling, it’s silly to lug around what can only be described as a fully-fledged library. You might also want something new to read straight away, and not have time to call at a bookshop. And there’s often deals to consider too, particularly if you’re just looking for a quick read.

As you settle into a sofa for the colder weather, here are eight praiseworthy Kindle books to unwind with for 2015 and 2016.



1. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami 

$7.51 / £4.99

I recently read A Wild Sheep Chase during a lone weekend adventure to Chamonix in France. In typical Murakami form, the novel draws upon themes of hiding away and having lots of time for contemplation (and wine). There’s snow, too.

As you might remember, I recently quoted some of my favourite lines from A Wild Sheep Chase (about packing a bag and going on a trip).

This is the book that first launched the author's international reputation, but another recent Murakami read of mine (and recommendation) is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his non-fiction memoir.

2. Best in Travel 2016: The Best Trends, Destinations, Journeys & Experiences for the Year Ahead

$10 / £6.64

Explore the world from your armchair with a Lonely Planet book and nurture your wanderlust for 2016. Also, if you’re in the UK, the following Lonely Planet books are on Kindle Unlimited at the moment (meaning free for Prime subscribers!)


3. Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

$6.01 / £0.00 for Kindle Unlimited UK

This wasn't a typical choice of novel for me, but it was definitely easy-going and relaxing for my trip from Switzerland to England this December.

The plot - woman spontaneously goes abroad, escapes life in Chicago - is a bit of a conscious spin on Eat, Pray, Love, but the novel's jokey and not-too-serious nature also reminded me of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, a book I've always said great things about.

Life and Other Near Death Experiences is a story about seizing life and ditching what others expect of you. It will make you laugh. It will make you ugly cry. And it will make you want to live your own life to its greatest potential. —HelloGiggles

4. The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) by David Lagercrantz

$10.56 / £6.99

It may not be one of the Stieg Larsson originals, but it’s hard to resist the allure of a book that continues the story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Salander and Blomkvist have survived the authorship transition intact and are just as compelling as ever . . . Fans of Stieg Larsson’s captivating odd couple of modern detective fiction will not be disappointed. —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

5. The Martian by Andy Weir

$5.25 / £4.99

If you haven’t watched the film yet, why not enjoy a few hours snuggled on the sofa with the book by Andy Weir? The same can apply if you have watched it already: Christmas can be a good time for book-movie comparison discussions!

the novel is a tightly constructed and completely believable story of a man’s ingenuity and strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Riveting. —David Pitt, Booklist

6. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

$9.02 / £5.99

Celeste Ng's debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is a wonderful book. It won the Amazon Book of the Year Award in 2014, with their Senior Books Editor, Chris Schluep, sharing the following:

From the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s stunning debut, we know that the oldest daughter of the Chinese-American Lee family has died. What follows is a novel that explores alienation, achievement, race, gender, family, and identity--as the police must unravel what has happened to Lydia, the Lee family must uncover the sister and daughter that they hardly knew. There isn’t a false note in this book, and my only concern in describing my profound admiration for Everything I Never Told You is that it might raise unachievable expectations in the reader. But it’s that good. Achingly, precisely, and sensitively written.

7. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

$6.13 / £4.07

I love Tan Twan Eng's writing, both in The Gift of Rain and his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. Perhaps my favourite book on my Kindle, The Gift of Rain is an enchanting novel, right from its opening lines:

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me. This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery...
The novel tells the story of Philip Hutton, a boy of mixed Chinese-English heritage, and his relationship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat who teaches him aikido. As war looms and the Japanese invade, both Endo and Philip find themselves torn between their loyalty to each other and their respective countries and families. It's a beautiful novel, and my Kindle edition is covered in highlights. Here's a favourite:

To have memories, happy or sorrowful, is a blessing, for it shows we have lived our lives without reservation. —The Gift of Rain


8. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

$5.71 / £0.99
JAMAICA, 1976
Seven gunmen storm Bob Marley’s house, machine guns blazing. The reggae superstar survives, but the gunmen are never caught.

If we're going to have time to conquer the Man Booker Prize winner for 2015, it might as well be at Christmas! I love this review by The Economist: "Manages consistently to shock and mesmerise at the same time…Best of all is the dialogue …its musicality is tinged with menace…this tale of a country and its people ravaged and transformed by tragedy packs quite a punch."


What are you reading on your Kindle at the moment? Share any exciting discoveries and deals with other readers in the comments!


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Reading tip: how to get your Kindle highlights and notes on your computer (and sync to Evernote)

As a general rule, I love paperbacks. And of course hardbacks. But I like reading on my Kindle because it’s portable.

Also, I highlight an obscene amount in the books I read that I read, and I have a way of importing these highlights into an easier format on my laptop. This comes in very useful when it comes to writing an article, or if I feel like simply reliving the magic of a book.

If you’re curious, I use a Google Chrome extension called clippings.io to import Kindle highlights and notes. It costs a tiny amount per month ($2 I think), but it's useful and appeals to my love for order (no affiliation whatsoever). So I'd say it's worth it.

How to set up clippings.io to export your Kindle notes

  • After installing the extension, make sure you’re logged into your Amazon.com and clippings.io account in Chrome.
  • Then press the 'full import; button if it’s the first time you import your highlights, or the ‘quick import’ button if you just want to import your latest annotations.

It takes a few minutes to do its thing (it seems to have got quicker in the last few weeks though), but soon you get a lovely list of all of your Kindle highlights and notes.




On the clippings.io website, it also suggests that you can automatically sync your notes if you use the Apple or Android Kindle app.


Add your Kindle highlights to Evernote (or Word, Excel, PDF)

You can then export the list of highlights. I choose to do this to Evernote (a digital filing cabinet for all of my notes, ideas, and things to read later), but there are other options too.



After syncing clippings.io with Evernote, you can just press “integrate with Evernote” each time you want to export new annotations.

Then you can get a new note on Evernote for each book, with all of your notes and clippings within it (or whatever options you choose). The page or location can be stored for each highlight, and if you’re looking for a quote in future you can just use the Evernote search function.

For me, it's great to have my Kindle highlights in one place and ready to search through–it does simplify a lot. Hopefully some of you also find this useful! Back to books in my next article...





Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Haruki Murakami on travelling light (and just getting up and going)


When I’m travelling, I like to read Haruki Murakami. I like the clean writing style of his books, but also their otherworldliness. Last weekend I spent two nights in Chamonix, travelling over the Swiss border into France, and finished up A Wild Sheep Chase before getting the train home.

It was a good case of reading material matching my environment: as the snow tumbled down in the Alps to kick off the ski season, Murakami’s protagonist was holed up in a run-down house as the first snow fell. If he waited on the hill much longer, he’d be stuck there for winter.

I highlighted one excellent paragraph at the start of the novel that's on travelling. In particular, it’s about packing light and deciding to just get up and go. Here it is:

Boarding a long-distance train without any luggage gave me a feeling of exhilaration. It was as if while out taking a leisurely stroll, I was suddenly like a dive-bomber caught in a space-time warp. In which there is nothing: no dentist’s appointments, no pending issues in desk drawers, no inextricably complicated human involvements, no favors demanded. I’d left that behind, temporarily. All I had with me were my tennis shoes with their misshapen rubber soles. They held fast to my feet like vague memories of another space-time.

It’s a good reminder not just to travel–and travel light–but to pop a Murakami novel in your bag before leaving. A Wild Sheep Chase is a great choice.


Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.