Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Celebrating Tolstoy's 186th Birthday with a Giveaway of A Calendar of Wisdom

A portrait of Leo Tolstoy in his study by Vasily Meshkov, 1910.

Today marks the 186th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's birth, September 9th 1828, and I felt it was only right that Tolstoy Therapy celebrates the occasion.

I was overwhelmed by the wonderful comments I received for the blog's two year birthday giveaway (I should compile your comments in a post!) and I thought something similar could work here.

The Tolstoy-related giveaway on offer is a copy of A Calendar of Wisdom, Tolstoy's collection of quotes and 'daily thoughts to nourish the soul', which was compiled over fifteen years towards the later years of his life. It's a superb collection of quotes on all manner of topics, and I know I've still got a lot to learn from it.

I wrote an article for Huffington Post Books about the book yesterday - entitled A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy's Little-Known Collection of Quotes to Nourish the Soul - and remembered how great it truly is. A Calendar of Wisdom is also not as well-known as Tolstoy's other books, meaning there's perhaps less chance of you having it in your libraries!

To enter, simply share your favourite quote - it could be anything, or by anyone - in the comments box below. Whether it's philosophical, literary, or something entirely different, if it means something to you I'd love to hear it. The last giveaway was random (lucky you, Alexandra!), but this time I'll choose my favourite.

Good luck to you all! I'll be choosing a winner on Monday 15th September.

Today, why not read one or two of my top ten posts on Tolstoy?

Have a great day, and I look forward to reading your chosen quote!

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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

If You Don't Know Where to Go in Life, Try Reading War and Peace

I write a lot about Pierre Bezukhov, one of the main character's in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. I've suggested how he can help us to appreciate life's simple pleasures and even overcome anxiety, as a character which so many first-time readers of the Russian masterpiece find themselves relating to.

In this quick post (which I'm compiling during a break from my back-to-university work), I'll share an early section of the book which I hope some of you will find wisdom in.

How Pierre and Andrei discuss low self-esteem and a lack of direction in War and Peace

The discussion starts with Andrei asking Pierre if he's made up his mind about his career path: "Have you made your mind up? Are you going to be a cavalryman or a diplomat?" The way in which Pierre responds can't help but resound with me:

"You won't find it hard to believe I still don't know. I don't fancy either of those jobs."

Is this familiar to you too? Next Andrei and Pierre both lament the state of their lives, and Pierre contemplates the absurdity that Andrei - that friend who seems to have it all - feels the same way he does:

'It seems odd,' said Pierre, 'that you, you consider yourself a failure and your life ruined. You've got your whole life in front of you, everything. And you...'

He did not say what about you, but his tone showed how much he admired his friend, and how much he was expecting from him in the future.

Andrei counters this by simply saying, "I'm yesterday's man', and then requests that the conversation go back to Pierre.

'Why, what is there to say about me?' said Pierre, his mouth broadening in an easy-going, happy smile. 'What am I? I am a bastard.' And he suddenly blushed to the roots of his hair. Clearly, it cost him a great effort to say this. 'No name, no fortune... And really, when all's said and done...' But he didn't say really what. 'Anyway, I'm free for the time being and I'm doing all right. It's just that I've no idea what to get going on. I wanted to talk things over with you seriously.'
How many of us really know what to get going on, or what direction to choose in life? I certainly have no idea: the more I get asked what I want to do after university, the less idea I seem to have.

Here's Andrei's advice for Pierre:

You'll be all right. Choose anything, it won't make any difference. You'll always be all right, but there is one thing - stop knocking about with the Kuragins and leading their kind of life. It doesn't suit you, all that riotous living, debauchery...

As Pierre hears this, he appears "as though a happy thought had suddenly struck him", and realises that this is what he's been thinking for some time: "with this kind of life I can't make any decisions, or think anything through". Whether he succeeds in doing so at this moment is a different story, but at this point he realises that things have to change.

What Pierre can teach us about finding direction in life

Reading War and Peace takes you along with Pierre on his journey away from drunken mindlessness and tying bears to policemen (yes, really) towards a sense of purpose. It's not without a few bumps on the way, but it's wonderfully authentic.

Whether you agree or disagree with Pierre's decisions or Andrei's advice, I think that simply by considering our own dreams and opinions we've made a great start. Whether it's a start on making a decision or realising that we simply don't have to, I'd say that either options are positive.

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Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Study Success: 11 Books & Articles to Help Students Hack Their Education

Today's article is slightly different from what I'd normally write about, but I'll use the excuse that the next academic year is approaching. Also, perhaps one or two of my readers are students (do lifelong students count?)

I've always enjoyed reading about learning techniques and study hacks, particularly when it comes to increasing efficiency and recall. Considering all the facts and dates I've forgotten from school, I don't want to do the same with my degree just yet.

Here are the books and articles which have most influenced my studying. Some of which have helped me pass exams I thought I wouldn't, while others have just provided me with useful and unconventional learning techniques.

11 best books and articles for study success
What books and articles have helped you to develop better study habits and learning methods? Image from picjumbo.

How to Win at College by Cal Newport
How to Win at College by Cal Newport

1. How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country's Top Students - Cal Newport

Cal Newport's research is fascinating, and he's achieved a lot. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004, went on to get a Ph.D. from MIT in 2009, and is now an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.

In addition to his academic work, he's published four superb books, largely focused on "contrarian, evidence-based advice for building a successful and fulfilling life" both in school and after graduation. How to Win at College may seem a bit unoriginal if you glance at the title and subtitle alone, but there's much more to it. Start by having a look at some of Newport's articles (linked below) on Study Hacks.

2. How to Get a First: Insights and Advice from a First-class Graduate - Michael Tefula

If you're at a British university and aiming for the top, you'll want to get a 1st class degree. This book is a bit more generic than Cal Newport's research, but it's still useful, particularly when it comes to investigating "the growth mindset"

3. The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You'll Ever Need - Daniel H. Pink

This is next on my reading list, as a book I've heard plenty of good stuff about. In descriptions of the book we're told that "the unlikeliest career advisor" gives six essential lessons for "thriving in the world of work". I'm certainly interested.

4. So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport

Daniel H. Pink study and career advice book
The Adventures of Johnny Bunko
by Daniel H. Pink

The premise of this book is that "following your passion" is bad advice and we'd do much better to cultivate our skills. It's more directed at the world of work than Newport's three other study-skills books, but we'd all do well to read it, students or otherwise. Newport's certainly convinced me not to become too wrapped up in the "passion myth".

5. Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will - Dale J. Stephens

Yes, the title of this one is slightly pretentious. However, Stephens helps you to create opportunities for yourself and tailor your curriculum - inside and outside the classroom. Whether you're wanting to travel, start a company, or succeed in business, this book has some great advice of how to get started now instead of waiting for graduation.

The best articles for students I've come across:

6. My plea to college students looking for a job or internship (Michael Adams)

7. How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying (Scott Young)

8. Studies and Studying: How Do Top Students Study? (Quora)

9. The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More by Doing Less (Study Hacks)

10. The Romantic Scholar: A New Approach to Student Life (Study Hacks)

11. The Notebook Method: How Pen and Paper Can Transform You Into a Star Student (Study Hacks)

Here's to a great academic year, both for the college students and the lifelong-learners! Do you have any other books or articles to add?

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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Tips for Reading War and Peace & Getting Started with Leo Tolstoy

A reader recently got in touch to ask what advice I'd give for reading War and Peace the first time. I've written before about the reasons why I love War and Peace, but with any 1300-page book, it takes some motivation to get started and, perhaps more so, to keep going.

If you've been looking to read the almighty Russian tome, perhaps this article may help you out. The following tips are based on my own experience, but I hope some readers find it useful.

A backdrop to envisage War and Peace. Scene in Red Square, Moscow, 1801. Oil on canvas by Fedor Yakovlevich Alekseev.

Think about what's motivating you to read it

I'm motivated to read War and Peace because I know it has a positive effect on me. It helps me to confront my anxiety in a mindful way, and I know I have a lot more to learn from the characters and Tolstoy's life lessons.

You may have been recommended the book by a friend, or you may want to say you've read it. Perhaps you've seen it on screen, or you're eagerly anticipating the BBC adaptation and would like to know a bit more about it. You might have read a few quotes and enjoyed them or wanted to hear more.

Look for the character (or characters) you can relate to

For me it's Pierre Bezukov with his lack of social graces but also his desire to do good and act in a moral way. But there's also Natasha Rostov's vibrant sense of life, Andrei's disillusionment, and Sonya's humility, as just a few examples. We can learn from their successes and failures, and understand a bit more about ourselves in the process.

“Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and I now believe in it. Let the dead bury the dead, but while I'm alive, I must live and be happy.”

While there are hundreds of characters in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy wants us to find the ones who really matter. I'd say it's like differentiating between friends and one-time acquaintances in our own lives.

Reading War and Peace can take a while - that's fine

Whether you choose to read a chapter a week, a chapter a day, or to do away with all targets whatsoever, read it in your own way. You could also try listening to an audiobook, perhaps while you travel, walk or go about chores. This is something I'm planning to do for my reading of War and Peace next August.
The Penguin edition of War and Peace,
translated by Anthony Briggs.

Don't hesitate to start again with a different translation

My favourite translation is the Anthony Briggs, although the Maude translation is defined by many as the definitive War and Peace. The Pevear and Volokhonsky is probably the most commercially available of all, and I know lots of people who have loved it, but I couldn't get into it.

I'd say it's worth sitting down in a bookshop and reading the first page of each translation available. Alternatively, if you find one translation difficult to read or get into, don't hesitate to start a different one (no matter how far you are through the book).

Keep notes, read summaries or stock-up on Post-its (whatever works for you)

On my first reading of War and Peace I simply read it through. I didn't make notes, but I did refer to the chapter summaries at the back of my edition when I got confused.

On my next reading I started writing about the book here on the blog, and I also underlined favourite passages made some notes in the book (this will probably offend a few readers!)

This year I've been sticking Post-it notes all over my books to help me categorise quotes I love, topics I'd like to write about, and connections to other books. I'm not far through War and Peace yet this August, yet there's already enough Post-its on my copy for a lifetime (with 1200 more pages, it could be a terrifying amount).

Treat it like any other book

War and Peace is just a book. How would you go about reading any other book? Do the same with Tolstoy (ok, and perhaps persevere a little more).

“If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.”

The Battle of Borodino (1812) is vividly depicted in War and Peace. Painting by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1822.

In my opinion, here's why I think you should read it

  • Tolstoy knew all about failure in love, work, friendships and ambition (and much more). He wasn't perfect - certainly not towards his wife - and neither are his characters. I think this all amounts to a great deal of authenticity.
  • To say that War and Peace is about everything isn't really exaggerating. While I would say it is too long in places (ahem, the essays at the end), there's so much to mull over and compare to our own lives. For me, it's like a handbook for life, both in helping me realise what to do and what definitely not to do.
  • (If you need more convincing, here are twelve more reasons why I'm such a supporter of War and Peace)

If you've read War and Peace, what would be your tip for another reader who's keen to get started on it?

Further reading

I'd also encourage you to seek out some of the great work by Russian literature scholars. Tolstoy: A Russian Life (2011) by Rosamund Bartlett is my favourite biography, while Andrew D. Kaufman's Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times (2014) makes a great case to give the book a go.

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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Poetry for Letting Go: In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver for letting go

Lately I've been reflecting on good poems to learn by heart, and "In Blackwater Woods" by Mary Oliver has caught my attention. I think this piece is applicable to both life's challenges and quieter plateaus, so I'd say it fits my unwritten requirements for memorised verse.

I know that the following lines will help me with grief and loss when it comes, and help me get back to what's really important when things are hectic:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

There's something I find calming and quite freeing about reading this over. As if the pressure is taken off for a moment. Mary Oliver neatly summarises something I often forget - that letting go is always possible in some sense. It also parallels the simple wisdom in I Am Pilgrim that "if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go".

Whatever it is we're letting go of, and however we're going to go about doing it, I think Mary Oliver can be a great mentor for the process.

You can read the full poem of "In Blackwater Woods" here, or you can find it in the American Primitive anthology. You can also read my article on waking up early with the help of Mary Oliver.

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Saturday, 16 August 2014

On Visiting Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's Home, to Better Enjoy His Poetry

I recently spent three days in the English Lake District, which could only mean one thing: a mandatory visit to Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's home between 1799 - 1808. Located in Grasmere, a short but idyllic bus journey from Windermere, fans of Romanticism - or any other reader or visitor - can tour the 400-year-old cottage and garden where Wordsworth wrote some of the greatest poetry in the English language.

Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home
The view of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home, from the top of the garden.

This is where Wordworth spent over eight years of "plain living, but high thinking", writing much of the poetry for which he is best remembered today. This includes his "Ode: Intimations of Immortality", "Ode to Duty", "My Heart Leaps Up", "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud", and parts of his autobiographical epic, The Prelude. Dove Cottage is also where Dorothy Wordworth, William's sister, wrote her famous Grasmere Journals, now on display in the adjacent museum.

On my visit to Dove Cottage I had a tour of the house, as a building of stone floors, dark panelled rooms, small windows and fireplaces throughout. You can see the seat where Wordsworth penned his most famous poems, and sit in the garden, their place of rest, mindfulness and inspiration. It was, wrote Wordsworth, ‘the work of our own hands’. Here the family planted flowers and vegetables, watched birds and butterflies and, above all, read and wrote poetry.

Wordsworth's garden of Dove Cottage

By spending time in the near-sublime surroundings of the Lake District, alongside Wordsworth's home and garden, it's easy to get a sense of where the poet found his inspiration and motivation to write. You can also form an idea why other Romantic poets - including Coleridge, Robert Southey and Charles Lamb - were so influenced by the area. I know I'd like to spend more time here writing and reading.

During my visit there was also a temporary exhibition on "Walking Poets", comparing Wordworth's poetry to the haikus of Bashō, which contained some really beautiful art interweaving the words of both poets. Would I have made this connection without visiting Dove Cottage? I doubt it, so the Wordsworth Trust certainly deserve a pat on the back.

Dove Cottage in the Lake District
The front of Dove Cottage, located in Grasmere.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

- "My Heart Leaps Up" - William Wordsworth
Dove Cottage poetry in the garden
"The peas are beaten down. The scarlet beans want sticking. The garden is overrun with weeds." Dorothy Wordsworth 1800.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

-From "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud"

Dorothy Wordsworth 'Timon of Athens' quote
"I read Timon of Athens. Dried linen. Molly weeded the turnips. John stuck the peas." Dorothy Wordsworth, 1800.

Have you visited the home of any other famous writers or artists? If so, did you also get a sense of how they found their inspiration in their home and surroundings?

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Thursday, 14 August 2014

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes: One of The Best Thrillers Ever Written?

I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes reviewAs I was approaching London Charing Cross on the train last month, I saw a nearby passenger completely engrossed in a book. He got off the train with the pages still open and sat down on a bench just opposite the train doors to finish his page. Later that same day, I heard the same book - I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes - recommended by one friend to another in Waterstones.

When you keep hearing a book be praised by complete strangers, I think you have to readjust your reading list accordingly.

I Am Pilgrim is a superb book, and I think the Guardian have it right when they say that it is "the only thriller you need to read this year".

It's a debut, surprisingly, written by an author born in my home county in the South East of England, Sussex. Terry Hayes's credentials do much to explain his achievement with I Am Pilgrim, however: he write the screenplay for Road Warrior/Mad Max 2 alongside a large number of other films and TV series.

What goes on in I Am Pilgrim

This novel is the perfect fit for cinema. It tells the story of Pilgrim, a codename for a man who doesn't exist. He's the adopted son of a wealthy American family, once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence, and wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation before retiring from the 'secret world'.

However, when somebody uses his book to commit the perfect crime, Pilgrim is pulled back to his anonymous career and all the danger it entails. Tracked down by NYPD detective Ben Bradley, Pilgrim is confronted with a textbook murder in a rundown New York hotel which combines the most challenging aspects of all the crimes he has ever been confronted with.

The plot develops, and Pilgrim is left to solve a deeper crime of international importance. Caught between the mysteries of an American hotel room murder, a suspicious suicide on the Turkish coast, and the journey of an extremist from a public beheading in Saudi Arabia to creating a deadly virus, this is no simple thriller. The separate plots swell and entwine, and we're left to make our own calculations while following the impressive deductions of Pilgrim.

I had got up in the morning and by the time I was ready for bed it was a different planet—the world doesn't change in front of your eyes; it changes behind your back.

- Pilgrim on 9/11, a sentiment so many of us can relate to

Read it for the main character (especially if you like Jason Bourne)

If you pick up I Am Pilgrim for one reason, do it for the main character. Pilgrim - otherwise known as Scott Murdoch, Jude Garrett and Peter Campbell (try not to think of Mad Men...) - may be anonymous to the world, but he isn't to the reader. We're fully exposed to his brilliant intelligence, including a psychology degree from Harvard and the rare ability to get to the raw truth of a crime.

However, we're also privy to his very human weaknesses. Pilgrim is left with much unsaid after his adopted father passes away, and many a reader can relate to his feelings of regret which make closure seem impossible. Also, we're all too aware of the character's desire for love and normality in a lifestyle which makes both impossible.

Similar books and movies to I Am Pilgrim certainly include the Jason Bourne series, especially when it comes to the outstanding yet vulnerable male protagonist. My favourite elements of the book include Pilgrim's search for normality in Paris, his writing as a way to find closure, and the comfort he finds in both written and spoken word.

The wisdom from a Buddhist monk that "if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go" unexpectedly affects the decisions of both Pilgrim and those he passes the phrase onto. Similarly, a reference to the Gospel of St Mark, chapter sixteen, verse six, provides strength when it is most needed. Pilgrim writes, "even if you are not a believer, the words are still very beautiful", and I agree wholeheartedly with this as an agnostic myself.

"He is risen" can tell us much about human strength, and I'm so glad Terry Hayes realised how appropriate it was to his novel.

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