Friday, 26 September 2014

Feel-Good Fiction: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion as a Mood-Boosting Sequel

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion swiftly became one of my favourite books. Last year it helped me get out of a rut and acted a welcome antidote to homesickness when I was living in Barcelona. I also included it in my mood-boosting and feel-good books list for the summer.

Now that the book's sequel, The Rosie Effect, is available on the shelves of all good bookshops (at least here in the UK), a follow-up review is very much required.

Could it ever be as good as The Rosie Project?  

I think expecting the sequel to be as good as the original is a bit too demanding in this case. I would certainly choose The Rosie Project as the better book, but The Rosie Effect doesn't let the author down. It also reminded me why precisely why I loved the characters. Don Tillman is a marvellous creation, and surely the best professor of genetics in literature.

What goes on

At we enter the book he's now married to Rosie Jarman, 'the world's most perfect woman', and he's soon to discover she's pregnant with his child. However, a very real question arises: can someone who struggles socially be a good partner and parent?

The book progresses from this point in all sorts of wonderful directions. We experience Don's feelings of heartbreak (in Don's own way, of course) as Rosie moves away from him, and we hope for their reconciliation. As to be expected, the book isn't without it's humour. There's the Bluefin Tuna Incident, the Playground Incident, and the Antenatal Uproar. You'll have to find out for yourself what these entail.

“I thought you were happy about having a baby."

I was happy in the way that I would be happy if the captain of an aircraft in which I was travelling announced that he had succeeded in restarting one engine after both had failed. Pleased that I would now probably survive, but shocked that the situation had arisen in the first place, and expecting a thorough investigation into the circumstances.

Don Tillman in The Rosie Effect

A long-awaited (and very much required) feel-good book

For me, the wonder of The Rosie Project was in meeting Don and Rosie and hearing Graeme Simsion's superb storytelling ability for the first time. As the sequel, however, The Rosie Effect was very welcome reading. The book made me realise that I was stressed, and I did need time to wind down, and it provided the perfect solution. It's hard to beat the feeling of knowing you have a great novel to look forward to after a day of working hard. 

If you're in need of a mood-boosting or relaxing book, pick up The Rosie Effect and try reading it for what it is: a heartwarming and uplifting story, rather than a sequel which needs to surpass the original.

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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Tolstoy Therapy Calendar of Wisdom: Quotes and Sayings to Nourish the Soul

I'd like to thank all of you who contributed such wonderful quotes for the giveaway at the start of this month, and I'll be using this post as a round-up of the contributions I most enjoyed.

Some of the quotations which you shared with me would certainly be worthy of a place in Tolstoy's own A Calendar of Wisdom, so I've decided to create the blog's own version. I hope you enjoy the choices as much as I have!

Tolstoy The Last Station
Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy in The Last Station.

A Selection of Your Quotes

To find mindfulness, as chosen by Paige:

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'” - A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

To get to know ourselves, as chosen by Syed

" I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means except by getting off his back. " - Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence, Leo Tolstoy

On finding your way, as chosen by Adrienne

"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose." - Dr Seuss
Quotes to learn by heart to nourish the soul
Which quotations and sayings help you to live well?


To find joy, as chosen by Camilla:

All this time
The Sun never says
To the Earth:
“You owe me.”

What happens
With a love like that.
It lights the

- Hafiz

For self-improvement, as chosen by Felicia

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” - Leo Tolstoy

Facing the unknown, as chosen by Natalie

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein

Facing low-mood and despair, as chosen by Alexandra

"Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men, I think, have great sadness on earth." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tolstoy in his study
Tolstoy in his study by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1908

To help make the world a better place, as chosen by John

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." - Winston Churchill

On authenticity, as chosen by Arjun

"Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense- only don't fail to pay attention to it." - Wittgenstein

On living well, as chosen by Praveen

"There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth." - Leo Tolstoy

Creating our Calendar of Wisdom

Do you have a small notebook of quotes, a few snippets learned by heart, or even a published anthology which you make use of during difficult times? I think we should all start working on one, and the great choices above should help get us started.

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.

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!

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, 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.

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, 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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