Saturday, 19 July 2014

'Give War and Peace a Chance' This Summer with Andrew D. Kaufman

My copy of Give War and Peace a Chance,
before it was covered in Post-it notes.
If there were any book I'd be desperate to read,  it would involve the life lessons we can gain from Leo Tolstoy and War and Peace. This explains why I was so excited to receive a copy of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times by likeminded Andrew D. Kaufman in the post this week.

My goal of reading Tolstoy every August is coming round fast, and I have to say this has made for some ideal pre-reading.

Kaufman, a Russian scholar, successfully makes War and Peace appear what to many seems impossible: fun. In an early chapter Kaufman recalls one of his friends exclaiming "Tolstoy's funny!", and this anecdote seems to have had a central role in the crafting of Give War and Peace a Chance.

For instance, here's Kaufman's account of one of Tolstoy's most complex moments, with the deep depression of losing his childhood home through gambling followed by a moment of sublime enlightenment:

There he is, in the middle of a nondescript gravel pathway deep in some godforsaken village in the Crimea, and instead of cutting his own throat, as he knows he deserves, Tolstoy contemplates starting his own religion. Of course, founding a new faith takes a while, and in the meantime he continued gambling, sleeping with random Asiatic beauties, and waking up with hangovers at noon.

It's a light, refreshing take on classic Russian literature, and Kaufman isn't afraid to laugh at himself and his less fortunate experiences. As a result, the book has a welcome personal side to it too. Overall, I have to say that this is the book I've been waiting for on Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Kaufman has done a marvellous job of conveying the sense of life, wonder and beauty of War and Peace, and I think both Tolstoy fans and unfamiliar readers would do well to give it a go. It's also given me so many ideas for articles here on the blog, so keep tuned for those!

Like Cézanne, who is said to have painted an apple in such a way that it seemed as though you were looking at it for the very first time, Tolstoy portrays life with an almost disconcerting truthfulness. Indeed, War and Peace thrusts readers raised on more polished literary fare out of their familiar paradigms and into a brave new fictional world, which, for all its strangeness, somehow starts to feel more "real" than reality itself.

Give War and Peace a Chance, Andrew D. Kaufman

Click here to see some of the posts I've enjoyed writing on Tolstoy and the influence he's had on my own life, especially when it comes to my perfectionism, shyness and anxiety.

Recently I also wrote on the main life lessons I've gained from reading Tolstoy's major works.

Has Tolstoy affected your life too? Don't hesitate to share your story in the comments or send me a message!

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Idea of 'Flow' & How We Can Create it by Reading Great Fiction

Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow: a brilliant book which reminds
us to get reading great fiction.
I've noticed that Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been mentioned in so many books I've been reading lately. Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction is the first example which comes to mind, but I know there are many other instances. Flow has become a landmark text as well as a bestseller, and I think it's deserved.

If you haven't read Flow, it outlines Csikszentmihalyi's theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Essentially it's mindfulness, but it's also a bit like 'being in the zone', or being so engrossed in an activity that you seem oblivious to what's going on around you.

Doing something 'just because' - rather than for external reasons of money or prestige, for example - is classed by Csikszentmihalyi as an 'autotelic' experience. I get this feeling when I'm writing or doing something creative, such as when I'm making handmade cards or designing something like the graph below.

The graph tries to convey Csikszentmihalyi's idea of flow in the simplest way possible. You can see that on one side of the diagram there's panic and anxiety: we want to avoid these when seeking flow. Alternatively, we don't want to creep onto the other side of the spectrum and experience boredom.

Right in the centre is where we want to be, enjoying a degree of challenge that just about stretches our existing skills but doesn't leave us feeling overwhelmed or under-qualified for the task.

Defining flow visually: finding a degree of challenge which runs parallel to our skills and confidence

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow diagram graph
A diagram of Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, showing how we should find the optimum balance
 between our skills and confidence and the task's degree of challenge.

When do you feel 'flow'? What about when reading a good book?

As you're reading my blog, perhaps you also experience flow when reading a good book. After a bit of consideration, maybe reading fiction is a great source of flow because:

How can you create 'flow' in your own life this week? What about picking up a great book that you've been waiting to read?

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Thursday, 10 July 2014

18 of The Best Feel-Good Classic Novels (Mood-Boosting Summer Reading, Part II)

I really enjoyed compiling my list of feel-good novels to enjoy reading this summer, and it got me thinking about mood-boosting classic literature.

Perhaps 'classic literature' is a little hard to define, but hopefully these suggestions will help prove that mood-boosting books don't need to be modern and recently published. Even those books that frequently feature on school syllabuses can bring a smile, I believe!

Some novels in my original list fit this category - the brilliant Three Men in a Boat as one, another being All Creatures Great and Small  - but here are a few more favourites.

Feel-good classic literature for summer reading
Four of my favourite feel-good classics from James Herriot, Dickens, Laurie Lee and Nabokov.

The prospect Smiler was a manic farmer. Few men I think can have been as unfortunate as he; for on the one hand he was a melancholic with a loathing for mankind, on the other, some paralysis had twisted his mouth into a permanent and radiant smile. So everyone he met, being warmed by his smile, would shout him a happy greeting. And beaming upon them with his sunny face he would curse them all to hell.

Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee

1. The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde

2. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe

3. Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis

4. The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis

5. A Midsummer Night's Dream - William Shakespeare

6. Cider with Rosie - Laurie Lee

7. Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë

8. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

9. Franny and Zooey - J.D. Salinger

10. The Giving Tree - Shel Silverstein

11. I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith

12. Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

13. Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

14. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

15. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - F. Scott Fitzgerald

16. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain

17. The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens

18. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery

Finally, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is another brilliant book to add - thank you to Eleanor, one of the wonderful readers of the blog, for reminding me of it in the first feel-good books post!

Which books do you think are missing?

Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.

The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis

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Friday, 4 July 2014

James Joyce's Daughter and the Possible Influence of Her Schizophrenia on Finnegans Wake

Paris, 1929: Lucia Joyce dances at Bullier Ball.
Lucia Joyce, born 1907 to James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, learned Italian as her first language, studied ballet as a teenager, and was believed to have casually dated Samuel Beckett. However, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in Zurich, Lucia was sent to an institute in Ivry-sur-Seine, France, in 1935 and in 1951 to St Andrew's Hospital in Northampton, where she died at the age of 75.

In Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (2003), Carol Schloss demonstrates her opinion that Lucia had been her father's muse for Finnegans Wake, the sprawling, experimental work which may well be classed equally as masterpiece and ridiculously challenging.

Lucia's health deteriorated during the seventeen years which Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, and for this reason I find it difficult to believe that it didn't affect his writing style in some way.  To what extent, however, is something I'm nowhere near sure of.

The question of Lucia as muse also appears in the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology which I've so enjoyed, as part of one of my most favourite selections (in this case by James McManus). Perhaps what makes the extract in this collection so personal and moving is McManus's own tale of his son's mental health, placed alongside Joyce's own family background. 

However, the extract also does a fine job at showing the expansive beauty of Finnegans Wake, as when McManus leads our attention to the final part of the book, in which the speaker is the River Liffey itself on a drizzly morning, speaking of her own 'father':

and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs!

A drawing of Joyce from 1922, the year in which Joyce began
 the 17-year task of writing Finnegans Wake, by Djuna Barnes 
Next in McManus's commentary is what he calls 'the eternal-return seam' of Finnegans Wake, which reminds him of Joyce's 'doomed, saltsick efforts' to understand and stay close to his daughter, alongside his own overwhelming desire to 'begin again' with his son. 

We can perhaps consider this while reading the final few lines of the book:

We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thous-endsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given ! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

And all of a sudden the book comes to a close, incomplete until we turn back to the start and the sentence is resumed, causing the full-circle theme of Finnegans Wake, alongside life itself, to become truly clear to us:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay...

So, can we call Lucia the muse of Finnegans Wake? I'm not yet sure, but McManus and Schloss are two writers who think so. Moreover, how far does the book narrate Lucia's struggles with mental health?

Over the summer I'd like to fully immerse myself in Finnegans Wake, a classic I've never read from start to finish, and consider this context of Joyce's daughter a little further. I've also been meaning to read the graphic novel Dotter of Her Father's Eyes for the last two years, ever since the hype around its publication in 2012, as a book which partly uses Lucia's life as subject.

Have you read Finnegans Wake? How convinced are you of the link between Lucia Joyce's mental health and the content - and perhaps also style - of the book?

Related material

"Madness and James Joyce", Robert Kaplan (2002)

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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Visual Representation of Books Mentioned in The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In my first article on The Secret History by Donna Tartt, I mentioned how the book not only cultivates a love of learning, but is also full of intertextuality; in other words, mentions of other books and authors. 

Some of my favourite books are in fact 'books about books' - The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Goldfinch, The Silver Linings Playbook - and I thought it could be interesting to explore the books mentioned in a bit more detail. 

Books mentioned in The Secret History infographic
Isn't it interesting that there are more mentions of books and authors towards the novel's beginning and end?

When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humorless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.

- Richard on insomnia and The Great Gatsby

Books Mentioned in The Secret History

Poetics by Aristotle
Agamemnon by Aeschylus
Inferno by Dante
The Iliad by Homer
The Bacchae by Euripedes
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (alongside other mentions of Sherlock Holmes)
Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Divine Comedy by Dante
The Greeks and the Irrational by E.R. Dodds
The Republic by Plato
The Aeneid by Virgil
The Superman comic
The Upanishads
"With Rue My Heart is Laden" by A.E. Housman
"Lycidas" by John Milton
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Lord Alfred Tennyson
"In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae
The New Testament
Anthony Janson's History of Art
"Why so pale and wan fond lover?" by Sir John Suckling
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson
The Revenger's Tragedy by Cyril Tourneur (now attributed to Thomas Middleton)
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Terence - Andria ("Hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears)
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them.

- A random quotation from Crime and Punishment, without citation, in The Secret History

Other Authors Mentioned

John Donne
John Ford
Marcel Proust
Christopher Marlowe
George Orwell
P.G. Wodehouse 
Philip K. Dick
Raymond Chandler
Charles Dickens
Leo Tolstoy

He was pleased, however obscurely, with the aesthetics of the thing..."Like something from Tolstoy, isn't it?" he remarked.

- Henry making a strange, perhaps not entirely accurate, comparison to Tolstoy

Have you read and enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt? Alternatively, what other 'books about books' are favourites of yours?

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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

9 Reasons I Think You Should Read The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

 My love for crime fiction has been left largely unsatisfied during my adult reading life. Each time I pick up a great crime or detective novel I promise myself to read more, but I'll then leave months before starting another.

However, I think that reading Robert Galbraith's Cormoran Strike series is changing this. The Cuckoo's Calling was one of my favourite books of last year, and The Silkworm didn't let J.K. Rowling down as Robert Galbraith. The sequel did start off slow, but soon everything started falling into place.

Here's a quick introduction to the novel:

When the eccentric novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in Cormoran Strike as private detective. At first it seems like a simple case of Quine going off by himself for a few days like he has before, but as Strike investigates, evidence appears to the contrary. Quine has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives. Yet while the novel is silenced, the author is found under horrific circumstances...

To help you get a wider view of the novel, Galbraith also cleverly chooses this epigraph by Thomas Dekker:
blood and vengeance the scene, death the story,
a sword imbrued with blood, the pen that writes,
and the poet a terrible buskined tragical fellow,
with a wreath about his head of burning match instead of bays.
―Thomas Dekker, The Noble Spanish Solider

Based on my own reading, here are some reasons why I think you should read The Silkworm:

1. It's a fascinating take on the streets of London

The constant mapping of characters onto London streets, as well as famous bars and restaurants, has been slightly criticised in some British reviews of The Silkworm. However, I thought it was brilliantly done. Living not far from London, I loved the real and intricate geography of the book.

2. Like The Cuckoo's Calling, references to the classics and Jacobean literature are everywhere

Every chapter starts with a quote from the likes of John Lyly, Ben Jonson and John Webster. These are so cleverly chosen, and I'm sure they'll evoke in many a reader the desire to learn more about the lives and work of Jacobean writers.

3. We get a fascinating insight into the British literary world and publishing circles

“The whole world's writing novels, but nobody's reading them.”
― Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

4. Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are like the modern Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

I'm a great fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work, as well as ever-so-slightly obsessed with the BBC Sherlock adaptation. Galbraith has done marvellous work to create this modern reflection of Holmes and Watson.

5. Robin Ellacott is a superb female detective figure

Robin Ellacott must be one of my favourite characters of the moment. I could often relate to her curiosity and desire to learn,  as I'm sure many of you readers would too. Attention to her good looks does tend to overshadow her intelligence at times, but perhaps this will change in future novels.

6. We're asked to make deductions of our own

Behind the scenes of The Silkworm, there's Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling, and ourselves as reader. We're left making our own Sherlockian deductions with the clues we're given, but we're left guessing right up until the end. That makes for a great reading experience.

7. Strike isn't your typical hero (or even detective)

As well as being a war veteran and amputee, Cormoran Strike stands out from any crowd - there's little that's subtle about the detective.

8. There's a superb play on introversion versus extroversion

Throughout The Silkworm, I found myself dividing characters into two camps: the publicity-hungry and the quiet and scheming. I was also so excited to see that Rowling thanks her editor, David Shelley, as "stalwart supporter and fellow INFJ" in the acknowledgements. I love it when figures I admire admit their own Myers-Briggs personality class (I know, it's probably not accurate). I'm an INTJ, by the way.

9. You want to know what happens after The Cuckoo's Calling

If you enjoyed book one of The Cormoran Strike series, you'll probably want to give The Silkworm a go at some point. After reading both, I'm tempted to start again from the beginning...

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Friday, 20 June 2014

Remedy a Reading Slump: 10 Ideas For When You're Having Trouble Reading

"Music and Literature," oil on canvas, by the American artist
William Michael Harnett (1878)
Being a bookworm is great, but it's not always a smooth process. You'll probably agree with me on this. Haven't we all experienced a reading slump at some time or another?

Every so often I find myself struggling to make time for books, or I simply find it difficult to turn as many pages as I used to. You may remember me admitting that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies can get in the way of my reading, too.

Here are some ideas I use to get back on track when I'm having trouble reading.

1. Listen to an audiobook

Audiobooks are brilliant to listen to before bed, during exercise, or when you're pottering around the house tidying, cooking or gardening. When I find myself struggling to make sense of a book, or re-reading lines over and over again, I know it's time to try an audiobook.

2. Pick something you think is too lighthearted and easy to read

I'm guilty of thinking that some novels are too easy to read, or even too lighthearted and enjoyable. Therefore, every so often I challenge myself to pick up a novel purely because I like the sound of it, rather than for reasons of educating myself.

3. Try a speed reading app

If I'm reading for pleasure and can't get into a book, I'll usually stop after the 50 page mark, but if I have to get through it - say for university - speed reading apps can be superb.

There has been a lot in the media about Spritz, an upcoming speed reading tool, and they've recently made their 'Spritzlet' available to add to your bookmarking bar and read articles online.

Also, you can use a Chrome extenstion called Spreed, or upload files and PDFs to Readsy.

One of my favourite reading hacks is to use a speed reading Chrome extension for online ebooks (ebooks@Adelaide have an unbeatable collection).

4. Buy a short story collection

Short stories are great if you're in need of something succinct, especially if you make sure you don't pressure yourself to read them all at once or chronologically. Alice Munro, Leo Tolstoy and F. Scott Fitzgerald all have wonderful short story collections.

5. If you normally read ebooks, try a paperback instead

I don't tend to read too many ebooks in a row, largely because I like getting back to the tactile reading experience that paperbacks provide. When I'm stuck in a reading rut, purchasing a beautiful paperback - or treating myself to a new hardback release - often reminds me why I love to read.

You could also:

6. Read poetry
7. Experience a genre or author that's completely new to you
8. Make sure not worry about having a reading break if you need one
9. Talk to fellow bookworms about the books that they've been enjoying
10. Have reasonable expectations: remind yourself you don't need to read everything on the Booker Prize list!

How do you get out of a reading rut?

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