Monday, 30 December 2013

Guest Post on Bibliotherapy & Doris Lessing: Spending Time in The Four-Gated City

A wonderful portrait of Doris Lessing by
Fernando Vicente.
This is a guest post by Marcy Sheiner, published author and blogger at BookBuster and Dirty Laundry. Marcy got in touch with me recently to discuss her newfound interest in bibliotherapy, and she kindly agreed to write a guest post for the blog on Doris Lessing, an author I've always wanted to read more of.

With Doris Lessing's recent death in November 2013, I feel this post couldn't be more timely, and I hope you enjoy reading Marcy's thoughts on the author's work as much as I have. Lucy.

Spending Time in the Four-Gated City by Marcy Sheiner

"A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement. Bibliotherapy deals with how and why this happens, and how this process can be put to use in ways which improve our lives as individuals and as social beings."-- What is Bibliotherapy?

Wikipedia's definition of a library as "a healing place for the soul" didn't strike me as a piece of startling news, but the existence of a therapeutic method based on novel-reading did. The theory behind bibliotherapy is that reading, like other kinds of therapy, can resolve complex problems in people's lives. Supposedly it's been around since the 1930's, but I never heard of bibliotherapy until recently—yet I instantly recognized that I'd unknowingly done it myself. In this I am probably not alone.

Although typically considered escapism, reading requires a more nuanced way of thinking than most avenues of escape. Think of poker, video games, television and movies, to name just a few escapist activities: surely reading differs qualitatively from these. It probably doesn't even matter which genre the reader happens to choose: if we accept Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message," then a Superman comic book makes for better brain candy than a TV documentary on the history of superheroes.

Doris Lessing, author of The Four-Gated City. Image source.
In mentally sorting through my reading experiences to determine which might be classified as therapeutic, several qualify; but the one that stands out the most is Doris Lessing' s The Four-Gated City, which I've read four or five times over the past 30 years. So powerfully and reliably does this book speak to me that I've turned to it when feeling deeply isolated.

The Four-Gated City is the last volume in the Children of Violence series, five books in a bildungsroman that traces the life of Martha Quest from adolescence to old age. Lessing always claimed her novels weren't autobiographical, but the more I learned about the writer and her work, the clearer it became that Martha was a stand-in for Doris.

The Four-Gated City opens with Martha Quest's arrival in London after World War II and ends in a post-nuclear commune of survivors, some of whom were born with various mutations from nuclear fallout. In the years between, Martha undergoes one transformative experience after another, many of which closely match my own life experiences.

Having abandoned, like Martha, a conventional life, I frequently found my thinking and perspective very different from that of other people. Like most non-conformists and artists, particularly writers, I was misunderstood and judged by my family and even by close friends. Thus I often felt isolated and confused; each time I chose to re-read Four-Gated City I was at a low point. I doubt that a majority of readers would call FGC sad or even emotional, yet I sobbed my way through it, intensely identified with Martha and her passages through life.

Reading Lessing dissolved my painful sense of isolation: with Doris Lessing I found someone who articulated my thoughts and feelings, and by so doing explained me to myself. As I wrote in my recent tribute upon her death, when reading Doris Lessing I felt I was in the presence of Truth writ large. I always emerged from FGC with a renewed sense of clarity and confidence in myself. This is what made the reading experience therapeutic.
The Four-Gated City. Image source.

Thinking back on the people to whom I've recommended The Four-Gated City, I'm astonished to realize that none ever followed my recommendation. Very few read any of Lessing's other books, either, though many had already read the ubiquitous Golden Notebook. Here and there someone might pick up The Summer Before the Dark or The Fifth Child, both of which are more conventional than FGC, at least on the surface (The Fifth Child can be read on a multitude of levels, including as a simple family story).

Several friends told me they tried to read Lessing's more challenging work, but just couldn't connect. This I understand: it took me three attempts in as many years before I finally managed to complete my first Lessing novel, A Proper Marriage (#2 in Children of Violence). I don't know why I kept trying, but I've always been grateful that I did: in time I became so attuned to Lessing's wavelength that I'd be hooked on a new book by the bottom of Page One.

I used to worry about her death, but when it actually came a few weeks ago, I realized she'd left enough books for me to return to, and I immediately re-read The Sweetest Dream, a relatively recent novel I'd only been through once. If I read nothing but Doris Lessing's books for the rest of my life (re-runs all) I'll run out of time before words. This gives me an enormous sense of comfort and security. Therapy indeed!

Like Marcy, have you also found reading to be therapeutic, whether it be Doris Lessing's work or that of another author? How did you respond to Doris Lessing's death?

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Blog Book Awards 2013: My Top 5 of the Year

Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being: one
of my favourite books of 2013. Image source.

Like so many others, I like the fresh start that January brings, yet in late December I also enjoy pondering the twelve months that have passed.

When thinking over 2013, I couldn't help but think over the books that I've read too (with a little help from my Goodreads records). "Did I really read that this year?!" was the recurring thought during this process; each book seems to mark a fragment of time, and some of these simply seem so long ago.

Here are the five books that, when looking down my 2013 read list, immediately pop out as favourites.

I must add that the books haven't necessarily been published this year, but they are the ones that bring up warm feelings and fond memories of characters, settings and plot elements.

They're also books I'm sure I'll return to in future. Some books are too good to simply read once!

My Top 5 Books of 2013


Where'd You Go, Bernadette? - Maria Semple
A Tale for the Time Being - Ruth Ozeki

Memoir & Autobiography

The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

Mystery & Thriller

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith


Which book would be your favourite of 2013? Would you choose any of the books that I've mentioned above?

Also worth a mention are The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng - two more wonderful novels!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Social Media Marketing for Bloggers: What Do You Do?

Social media marketing for bloggers
A beautiful desk and work space: perfect for
blogging. Image source.

As some of you may know, I'm currently undergoing a twelve-week Google mentoring programme. Alongside being incredibly exciting (it's Google!), I'm also learning so much, particularly about marketing.

I'm currently managing online marketing for a travel startup in Barcelona, so I've learnt a fair bit about social media from this already, but now I'm starting to think more about how I market my blog.

Should book bloggers be using social media to promote their content and engage with other bloggers and readers? If so, what do you do already?

Social media for book bloggers: a routine and some tips I'm following


I love Twitter, and I've just decided to split my tweets between a personal profile and a Tolstoy Therapy one. It's a great way to share your articles, chat about books and find some new literary friends and recommendations. I try to post on Twitter several times a day, when possible.

As one of the easiest social media sites to waste time on, Pinterest is also a great way to share and find exciting photos and images. I've found a lot of my favourite literary quotes and photos on this site, and I try to 'repin' the ones I'd like to return to in future. I need to spend some time working on my Pinterest boards, and in future spend an hour or so a week procrastinating (I mean social media marketing) on the site.


I only got my Instagram account last week (after getting a wonderful Nexus 5 phone), but I'm really excited about looking into how other bibliophiles use it. It seems like a great way to find exciting photos and share your own, so I'll probably post whenever I have lovely new books to share!
This is probably my weakest area of social media, and I've only just started working properly on my Facebook page. This must change! The aim is to post every 1-3 days, sharing something like an article from my blog or another site, a literary image, quote, or list.


Most people seem to dislike Google+, but it's probably the social network with the most potential. Google are doing so much to integrate their search engine we know and love with Google+, and you may have noticed nifty red '+1' buttons hanging around the net.

The more G+ that your articles gain, the more reputation your site seems to get, and it's a great way of gaining more backlinks. If you're interested in the connection between Google+ and SEO, take a look at this great article. I'd like to post on my G+ page every 1-3 days, and also keep my bibliotherapy community updated.

Do you use social media to promote your blog, or do you prefer to keep things simple and just enjoy the process of blogging? It would be great to hear from you all!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Quotes for Post-its: Theodore Roosevelt's 'The Man in the Arena' Speech

Man in the arena speech

I'm a great believer in quotes, and Theodore Roosevelt's 'The Man in the Arena' speech is one of my favourites. Brené Brown's TED Talk helped me truly appreciate it, and it's a passage that we'd all do well to remember, whether to help us through love, life, business, health or something completely different.

"A quote for a Post-it?", you may be asking. Well, quite simply, I copy my favourite quotes, lines of poetry and other inspirational or beautiful words onto Post-it notes. It works for me.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena. Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic", delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: Antarctica, Agoraphobia and Loveable Quirkiness

Where'd You Go Bernadette doll
If you read Where'd You Go, Bernadette, you'll enjoy this photo from the author's website! Image source.

I can feel the irrationality and anxiety draining my store of energy like a battery-operated racecar grinding away in the corner. This is energy I will need to get through the next day. But I just lie in bed and watch it burn, and with it any hope for a productive tomorrow.

This is very uncharacteristic of me to say, but Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a real gem of a novel. I'll probably edit that out later, but there, I've said it. After living in Spain, Los Angeles and Colorado as a child, Maria Semple received a BA in English from Barnard College in 1986 before screenwriting for Beverly Hills, 90210 and writing her first novel, This One is Mine, in 2008.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette, published in 2012, is a marvellous, intelligent second novel. Semple tells of Bernadette Fox - up-and-coming architect turned reclusive, fishing-vest-wearing trouble-maker - and her disappearance before the family's scheduled trip to Antarctica

The novel is pieced together by Bernadette's daughter, Bee (full name, Balakrishna), as she sets herself the task of unravelling the mystery behind her mother's disappearance. Bee's intelligence is off the scale, she helps out at homework club, and to top it off, she was born with a heart defect but remains averse to sympathy or pity.

You can tell that mothers on the Galer Street playground would be uttering, "Why can't you be more like Bee Branch?" when their kids are setting up drug cartels rather than playing shakuhachis (Japanese flutes) like Bernadette Fox's wonderful daughter. 

A playground, it must be said, that Bernadette Fox does not set foot on, particularly after she takes to employing a personal virtual assistant from India to fuel her existing agoraphobic tendencies

Where'd You Go Bernadette doll
Lovely cover, no? Image source.
An aspect I particularly enjoyed about the novel is how Bernadette's husband, Elgie Branch, works for Microsoft. Elgie is worshipped by society for his contributions to technology, and he's known as "the man with the fourth-most-watched TED talk of all time". The following quote, by a certain Audrey Griffin, probably made me laugh more than any other moment in the novel:

I don't give a fig about Ted. I don't know who he is and I don't care what he says during this talk you refuse to shut up about.

It's a superb novel of escaping life, heading into the unknown and facing anxiety head-on. Maria Semple writes in such a quirky, loveable way, and I'm so keen to read her first novel, This One is Mine, over my Christmas break.

My Mum is an architect and has been facing a rough patch lately, so I'm certainly going to buy her this novel for Christmas! Even as a non-reader (awful, I know), I'm sure she'll love it once she gets into it.

On a side note, I now really, really want to go to Antarctica. 

I'd recommend Where'd You Go, Bernadette for: being stuck in a rut, anxiety, low mood, agoraphobia, anyone in need of something fun and original!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Books Can Heal: Reading Meditation and Bibliotherapy

Beautiful reading nook and bookshelf for relaxation
Gorgeous bookshelves and reading nook to inspire your
reading meditation! Source.
This is a guest post by Kathleen Miller at Project Reinvention. Kathleen is a brilliant coach and blogger (with many beliefs and thoughts similar to my own), so do check out her blog if you haven't already!

I have been a long-time reader of Lucy’s blog and am delighted to have the opportunity to write a guest post. An avid reader since childhood, my relationship to books has been long and personal. In 2012, I earned my Ph.D. in English literature, studying reader’s response to genres as diverse as the Gothic and the romance. Now, I am a life coach who uses bibliocoaching—combining the tools of coaching with reading practice—to guide my clients through career decisions, relationship difficulties, and chronic health problems.

Like Lucy, I have found comfort and a sense of common humanity while reading through illness. My own struggles with chronic illness have manifested in many forms—interstitial cystitis, skin rashes, and chronic pain (to name a few). My physical illnesses have been mind-body syndromes--manifestations of my stress, anxiety, and unaddressed “negative” feelings. When dealing with my chronic physical illnesses, I’ve used bibliotherapy to help work through issues I was having at the time.

And while using bibliotherapy to reflect on, and engage with, a story on the content level has been immensely helpful in managing my pain, I’ve also found my pain responds well to mindfulness practices such as meditation. Meditation stills my mind, roots me in my body, and lets me experience the present moment through my senses. Noticing how much better I felt when doing the two—reading and dropping into stillness—I began to wonder how does one combine reading practice with meditation? What might be the benefits? Although we often think of reading as a form of escape, can it be a form of presence?

Why meditate? 

According to an article in Psychology Today on the “Benefits of Meditation,” “Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex - brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.” In other words, people who meditate manipulate their brain activity so they respond to stressors in happier, calmer ways. For people coping with illnesses such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, or PTSD, stress management can be a key way to increase a sense of overall well-being.

Lovely old and pretty books
Beautifully bibliotherapeutic old books. Source.

To begin shifting your brain waves towards less stressful, circular, or catastrophic thoughts, I find this quick and easy reading meditation effectively roots me in the current moment:

Reading Meditation

Get in a comfortable reading position. You may be supine in your bed propped up with pillows. Or maybe you’re curled into a ball deep in the couch cushions. Perhaps you’re sitting outside under a tree running your hand through the grass blades. Wherever you wind up, take a moment to notice how your body feels. Can you feel the support of the cushion against your legs? The softness of your blankets on your face? The firmness of the earth on your toosh? Scrunch your toes or hands, holding them scrunched for a few seconds, then releasing them. Notice the energy coursing through your body, the sensations as you tense and relax various muscles.

Slowly take your book in hand. Touch the book’s cover. Pay attention to how the cover feels, as you run your hand slowly back and forth. Is it cold? Hot? Smooth? Rough? Covered in icky library plastic?

Open the book and notice how your hand feels touching the pages. Are the pages rough? Smooth? Made out of delicious silky soft, creamy paper? Place all your attention on the sensation of touching the page. I like to rub a page between my thumb and forefinger, but you can do as you wish. Your mind will want to chime in. Maybe it’ll remind you to pick up the dry cleaning. Or it might say that this whole reading meditation is silly and you have more important things to be doing. Thank your mind and tell it to “rest,” to be “silent,” to “hush.” You didn’t invite your mind to this reading party. Once your mind is stilled, bring your attention back to your body.

Now, notice your breathing. Pay attention as your stomach expands with air. Breathe, letting your belly grow round and full. Exhale. Regulate your breathing, making your inhalation and exhalation the same length. Hold the book up to your nose. Notice the scent of the pages. For allergy sufferers like me, you might want to consider using this method only when handling new books. The manky brown tome from the used bookstore might have you rushing for the tissue box and the asthma inhaler, rather than shifting you to a blissed out Zen state.

Repeat stroking the pages, breathing in the smell of the book, and relaxing your breathing. You’ll notice a feeling of peace. A feeling of relaxation. You will be reconnected to your body. Reconnected to this moment.

Kathleen Miller

(Lucy) Does reading have a meditative effect on you? I'm keen to explore the concept further myself, so look out for my upcoming experiments with reading meditation! Also coming up: a big thank you message, alongside reviews of the wonderful Where'd You Go, Bernadette and The Shock of The Fall.

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.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Would You Like to Write a Guest Post?

Large wall bookshelf

I've been wondering about ways to open up my blog to more readers, and I think a great way to do this would be to diversify the ideas and stories shared on it. Therefore, I'd like to open up an ongoing possibility for guest posts!

I'd like to keep the options quite open, but ideas include:

  • Discuss the books you've most enjoyed reading in 2013
  • Review a book that I've mentioned or recommended here on the blog, perhaps one by Tolstoy (thanks to Brian for suggesting something like this!) 
  • Outline why a particular book has shaped you, stating who you would recommend it to and why
  • Share how a book has helped you through a particular problem, feeling or situation
  • Compile a list of recommended books (maybe for certain feelings, to help you feel calmer, to read before bed, etc)

If at any point you think of something you'd like to share, send me a message on my contact form, comment here on the blog, or contact me through social media. I'm sure we can work something out!

And of course, if you do contribute, I'd be happy to help you promote your own blog.


Thursday, 28 November 2013

TechAbility 2013: Two Days at Google Paris!

Google Paris office car
I can vouch for the presence of this car in the Google Paris offices. There's also a cow sculpture outside, a shrine to wine and VERY good food. Macarons, pizza, Google wasabi peas - the whole shebang.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I mentioned a little trip to Paris I had planned for this week. This was for the Google TechAbility 2013 programme, which certainly deserves a post of its own.

TechAbility is an offshoot of EmployAbility, a scheme to get students with disabilities or dyslexia working with prestigious firms for internships, grad roles, events or work experience. And when you think of prestige in the business world, Google will probably come to mind. Yes - Google. EmployAbility has pretty good connections, right?

I certainly wasn't planning on turning down the opportunity to spend two days at Google Paris, and I'm glad I didn't think twice before booking my flight. The event was superbly planned, and the work of EmployAbility's Tab Ahmad and Google's Clare Bass has been remarkable. As someone who is looking for ways to reduce the stigma surrounding disability, particularly mental health, their work seems incredible to me.

On Wednesday, the main day of the event, fifty participants - each with a disability or dyslexia - gathered together in the Google Paris office to learn more about Google and its products (both new and existing), 'grill a Googler', get tailored CV and interview advice, and meet likeminded students. Having the opportunity to ask Google employees about their own job roles, work history and thoughts of Google is something I can't underestimate.

Google Paris building
Google Paris: it's awesome.
Also, the projects and achievements of the other participants, regardless of their disability, was nothing less than awe-inspiring. It wasn't like "oh, what's your disability then?" at any point, but rather there was an environment of acceptance and non-judgmental communication. I didn't tell anyone except the EmployAbility team what disabilities I had, and I never felt pressured to. Both my physical disability and PTSD were considered throughout the application process and the event itself, which is, apart from the work of my wonderful university, unfortunately something I'm not used in the working world.

On the Thursday, as one of seventeen participants chosen to participate in the twelve-week Google TechAbility mentoring programme, I returned to Google Paris once more. We had an initial introduction to the mentoring programme before meeting our mentor for the first time, although as my mentor works for Google Wroclaw and couldn't make the trip over, we made do with a one-hour conversation over Google Hangout.

My good luck continues as my mentor seems to be so friendly and helpful, and I'm sure she'll be of great help when it comes to developing Tolstoy Therapy - and associated ideas - further and making the most of my time working for a travel startup in Barcelona. Could a trip to Poland be in the pipeline? Perhaps!

Also, by participating in the TechAbility programme, it should be made easier for me to apply for an internship or graduate role at Google. Let's see how that goes!

If you're an undergraduate, postgrad or recent graduate with a disability or dyslexia, I couldn't recommend more highly that you check out EmployAbility and the schemes they offer. They're working so hard to break down the barriers that disabled students so often face, and it really is something that you can make the most of.

Google goodies
Google-related loot to induce envy in friends, family
 and colleagues.
If you'd like to ask me more about the application process or my experience so far with EmployAbility, TechAbility or Google, don't hesitate to get in touch through my contact form. I'd definitely try to help you out with any questions or advice.

N.B. This post also acts as a convenient start of my plans to use the blog to reduce mental health stigma. I'll still be focusing on books - and particularly bibliotherapy - in many of my posts, but I think making use of the platform I've built here will be so much more effective than starting a separate website at this point. Keep an eye on the blog for more!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Changing My Mind About... NW by Zadie Smith

NW by Zadie Smith
NW by Zadie Smith - an intelligent novel
or just jumbled? Source.
I haven't read any other reviews of Zadie Smith's latest novel, NW, yet, despite it being published during Autumn last year. However, I'd like to write my review first to avoid getting too caught up in the thoughts of others. Here's a brief summary of the novel:

Zadie Smith's brilliant tragi-comic NW follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. From private houses to public parks, at work and at play, their city is brutal, beautiful and complicated. Yet after a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel. A portrait of modern urban life, NW is funny, sad and urgent - as brimming with vitality as the city itself.

NW was not an easy read by any means. I started it on my way out to Spain towards the end of August, and I've only just finished it now, in late

November. This has something to do with the reading difficulties I've been having (which have become more bearable after I discussed them here on the blog, alongside my choice to read more audiobooks and paperbacks than ebooks), but the choppy, unsettled tone and structure of the book was mostly accountable.

Before I finished the novel last week, I was thinking that I definitely wouldn't be reviewing it here on the blog. For one, how could I encourage others to read it if I hadn't enjoyed it? Moreover, what would I fill a blog post about it with?

Yet here I am, writing about NW, and I think I'll use this post to outline why I changed my mind. Perhaps it's interesting to note here that Zadie Smith has a collection of essays entitled Changing My Mind - maybe I will turn to these at some point!

To be brief, my problems with the book were the following:

  • It was often dense, confusing and difficult to read
  • It wasn't something I could spend large chunks of time reading
  • I often felt like I wasn't getting anywhere with the book.

Zadie Smith author
Zadie Smith, author of novels including NW and On BeautySource.

However, the following factors changed my mind about NW:

  • Zadie Smith's descriptions of race tend to be fascinating. I studied the treatment of race in her previous novel, On Beauty, at length during my last year of university, and spent a lot of time listening to my lecturer's thoughts on hybridity, transatlantacism, and mixed race identity. Smith expresses a focus on race throughout her writing, and it's particularly interesting to see how she presents mixed race friendships in a city as multicultural as London. 
  • NW also got me thinking about Paul Gilroy's use of 'roots' and 'routes' in his critical work on race, with 'roots' referring to someone's ancestry and origins, and 'routes' referring to the journey that they take (for instance, the routes of slaves from Africa to America). 
  • Keisha Blake (who becomes Natalie Blake in adolescence) undergoes a compelling transformation from poor council estate child to successful lawyer. For various reasons I tend to enjoy novels in which the characters transcend hardship. 
  • The virtue of working hard comes into this, although I'm not sure if this is with some irony. Does Smith truly believe that by working hard anyone can escape life on a council estate, or any poverty or deprivation for that matter? Are there not limits? Does Zadie Smith's personal experience come into this, whether she's being ironical or not?

NW is an infuriating novel, but it gets you thinking and leads to conversation. I think a novel is truly bad when you can't find anything to say about it, and NW has given me a lot to talk about. Will I ever return to the novel? Almost certainly not. Will I read other novels by Zadie Smith? Certainly.

Also: Check out Brian's lovely review of my ebook over on his blog, Babbling Books!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Reading OCD: A Confession of Why I'm Not Reading

Yesterday evening I was planning to wind down with my Kindle and a cup of my 'buenas noches' tea. I've been looking forward to reading Brené Brown's Daring Greatly for a long time now, ever since I first watched her TED talks, and I think it's the perfect time for me to learn from her lessons on vulnerability. I've also been wanting to get on with other books that are in varying states of progress. 

There's just one problem: my mind is doing everything it can to stop me from reading.

Last night, I settled down with the Brené Brown book readily downloaded on my Kindle and I read the first sentence. I wasn't sure I had read it properly, so I read it again. I moved on to the next sentence, but then I couldn't remember what happened in the sentence before, so I went back to the beginning. I moved on to the next sentence, then the whole process repeated again. 

With each sentence the tightness in my chest grew stronger, alongside the growing panic that I hadn't understood it properly or read it correctly. This isn't the first time it's happened by any means: the last few months I've experienced it almost every moment I've spent reading. I know it doesn't make sense at all and it sounds really pathetic, but I'm struggling to work out how to control it. And it's intensely painful. 

Perhaps now it makes sense to you why I've only read five books since the start of August. I've been reluctant to admit that I've been facing this problem, and I haven't really let myself think about it, let alone tell anyone else. I can tell that it's bad because I've only just Googled it: normally I'm the first person to type my symptoms into a search engine and become paranoid about all the possible problems.

Google provides the following answer by Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D., as outlined on a a blog by someone who seems to be experiencing exactly the same thing as me:

“The core of the problem is having the feeling that you don’t understand what you read. As a result, you reread a sentence or a word over and over before going on to the next sentence. Unfortunately, this contributes to destroying the flow of what you are reading, so the feeling of understanding becomes even more unattainable. Generally, the more important the material, the greater the anxiety. Schoolwork becomes torture.”

Now that sounds familiar.

I've never really gone into my OCD that much on the blog, and I've never pursued any help for it (apart from being diagnosed a few years ago). I felt that there were more pressing issues to deal with, and that my compulsions would be something I could deal with singlehandedly with time. However, now I'll listen to Brené Brown and give in to my vulnerability. Or at least try to.

In my early teenage years, it was a need for neatness and order that affected me. I'd spend hours arranging drawers and smoothing the creases from my bed. I'd be on the verge of tears if someone moved my pencil case from how I'd put it on my desk. Yes, it was by all means the stereotypical 'OCD' behaviour that's dismissively described by everyone these days. But things were out of control, and I was desperate to control what I could. I really needed to read Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations back then.

At university, I became terrified that I'd sleepwalk and end up outside my halls of residence. I'd spend a good hour before bed putting my desk chair in front of my door and something in front of the window to stop me going near it. I would check the doors and windows again and again. It was almost laughably bad luck that I dropped the window key out the window and into a drain underneath.

These habits persisted throughout both my first and second years of university, and my nighttime anxiety developed into fears that people I loved were in danger. If I didn't count in a certain way (usally groups of four), a family member would fall sick. And I couldn't just do it once and everything would be ok: I'd have to repeat the counting until it felt right. That could take a while.

To make matters worse, about a year ago the counting became more physical, and I'd have to tap my head in groups of four a certain amount of times whenever bad thoughts came to me. If you ever met me and saw me tapping my forehead and trying my hardest to make it look like I was scratching an itch or moving my hair, that's that was going on. I'm embarrassed to say it still happens several times a day and without fail every night.

It's fairly easy to understand why I keep all of this quiet from people. The tidiness and the furniture rearranging and the bad thoughts and the head tapping have all been - and often still are - very hard to deal with, but not being able to read is by far the worst-case scenario for me.

Unlike my other compulsions, I don't get any sense of order or relief from giving in and reading sentences over and over again. The stress just gets higher the longer I spend with the book, and I'm so angry with myself that I've let this develop into a ritual. But the thing is, by the time I realise that something has become a ritual, it's already a full-blown problem.

I'm looking into solutions, and particularly into whether this is something I can deal with on my own. I know that I'm going to have push myself and go ahead with what scares me even when it's pulling me apart. I'm aware that it's going to be really challenging, and probably exhausting too. Even writing this post has made me feel incredibly vulnerable, and it's going to take a lot of courage to press 'publish'.

I know I'm going to have to dare greatly, and so I might as well start by reading the Brené Brown and kill two birds with one stone.

Can I possibly find a way to use bibliotherapy to treat the panic and fear I'm experiencing in the face of books, the literature that has always meant so much to me? It's going to be a challenge, I'll give you that.

N.B. In the time between writing this and publishing it, I've decided to give an audiobook a go. At least for the time being, it looks like something that could work for me. Do any of you listen to audiobooks? What do you think of them?

Marcus Aurelius on 'The quality of your thoughts'
Marcus Aurelius: the eternal provider of wisdom! Image source.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Book About Books: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
The End of Your Life Book Club: a
bibliotherapeutic book for booklovers!
Image source.
"Why didn't I buy the paperback edition?" is the question that I seem to be forever asking myself these days. It generally happens after I read something remarkable and I want to share it with everyone. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe is one such book.

If you love reading as much as I do - and I know most of you do - then I'd love for you to get a copy and let me know what you think. It's perhaps best classed as a memoir, in which Will Schwalbe celebrates his mother's life and their shared relationship with literature; something which becomes most prominent following his mother's diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.

His mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, truly deserved to have a book written about her life. In fact, I think it was necessary. She spent a great deal of her life in education, teaching and overseeing admissions (including some time at both Radcliffe and Harvard University), but during her last two decades she dedicated herself to working with refugees worldwide.

She spent six months in Thai refugee camps, was shot at in Afghanistan, and was an electoral observer in the Balkans. She founded the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and persuaded the International Rescue Committee to set up a UK office. Towards the end of her life, her work to fund a library project in Afghanistan reflected her love of reading and her belief in its power to change.

Will Schwalbe describes Mary Anne as the 'air traffic control' in their family, as the person who would automatically assume responsibility and control over others. You notice this characteristic of hers throughout the book, not least in how 'Will's' blog posts about her health are in fact written by her. In some reviews people criticise this side of her character, but I appreciated how Will wrote so accurately and honestly about his incredibly philanthropic and kind, yet always on the go, mother.

The 'End of Your Life Book Club' described in the title encompasses the literary bond between Will and Mary Anne that is strengthened with Mary Anne's deterioration of health. Before her check-ups and chemo appointments, the mother and son discuss the books they have both been reading. As they choose to read (or reread) the same books together, their book club of two people is formed.

I love that there was a balance between classic texts and new fiction in their book club. Thomas Mann's tomes and Tolkien's The Hobbit are discussed at length, but so are novels such as Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Will and Mary Anne both provide their own insights into each text, and in the case that I'd read the book too, I also considered my own thoughts.

By reading this book you're invited into Will and Mary Anne's book club, and this is perhaps what I enjoyed most about it. Not only could I join their discussions of great books, but I could also find recommendations of novels I'd perhaps enjoy as much as they did.

After finishing The End of Your Life Book Club this morning, I'm going to send an email to my local village bookshop asking them to stock The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly and Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro in time for my trip back home next weekend. I'm in need of some real, tangible books, and Will Schwalbe's remarkable book has provided me with the perfect ideas to start with.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Get My Bibliotherapy Book on Kindle! Tolstoy Therapy: A Fiction Prescription

Tolstoy Therapy: A Fiction Prescription -
my ebook on bibliotherapy and the joy of
The project that I've been working on since the start of summer has finally come to a close: I've published my ebook! I could have spent another ten years editing it, I'm sure, but I decided to silence my perfectionism and simply get on with it.

I finally decided on the title "Tolstoy Therapy: A Fiction Prescription", although my boyfriend was certain that his suggestion of a subtitle ("Beautiful Books for Beating Beastly Bad Thoughts") would guarantee a bestseller. I've also decided to publish under my Mum's surname, as I'm still a little uncomfortable with employers, friends and family knowing about such personal issues. Some of you may not agree with this, but perhaps my decision will change with time. What do you think about having a pen name?

What's in my bibliotherapy book

There are ten chapters on specific issues, feelings and situations - for instance anxiety, making choices, and spending time alone - followed by a guide to how rereading, memorising poetry, and forming a reading habit can help you. There are also some lists in the appendix to help readers get closer to finding the perfect book for them.

My experience of using bibliotherapy for my PTSD and anxiety does provide a backbone to the book, but I wanted to largely focus on the reader and show how it is possible for anyone to find their perfect fiction prescription.

The book couldn't have been completed without the stories that so many of you have contributed, and for this I am so grateful. Thank you!

It would be great if you could give the book a read and let me know what you think. I'm planning to offer it as a free Kindle ebook this Friday, so remember to log in to Amazon then if you'd like a free copy! I'll also keep it at the lowest price I can for the first week or so.

I'd like to make sure that everyone who contributed gets a free copy - alongside all of you kind enough to comment on the blog regularly - so if you are one of these people and you won't be able to download it on Friday (or if you want it sooner!) get in touch.

It's been such a great experience writing this ebook, and it's really inspired me to think more about how I can spend my time writing in the future. November is coming up, but I'm not sure if starting NaNoWriMo will be a little too soon for me!

Here's the link to the book on Amazon UK
Here's the link to the book on Amazon US

Sunday, 20 October 2013

TED Talks on Mental Health: Depression, Bipolar & Schizophrenia

Many of you will know how much I love watching TED talks. While many are educational, there are just as many that are inspirational and motivating, and I've gained an incredible amount from the website.

I've listed before the best talks on low self-esteem, anxiety and PTSD, but here I'll outline three TED talks on mental health that I've enjoyed recently. The three I've chosen are on depression, bipolar and schizophrenia, although they all say something about mental health as a whole too.

On depression: Kevin Breel - Confessions of a depressed comic

Kevin Breen TED talk on depression
A TED talk on depression by Kevin Breel. Image from TED.

Kevin's story is very emotional, and it hits home hard for those of us who have experienced depression at any point in our lives. In other words, it resonates with all of us to some degree. This type of TED talk is exactly what society needs right now, as Kevin emphasises that collectively turning a blind eye to depression is precisely why depression is so difficult.

As Kevin puts so eloquently, "It's not the suffering inside of you, it's the stigma of others" that stops you from being healthy. Because we don't see it, we don't see the severity of it, and this needs to change.

Society's prescription for depression should be acceptance, or treating depression like any other broken bone or physical ailment. With acceptance of mental illness, social support and healing will follow.

"We are so accepting of any body part breaking down, other than our brain... and that's ignorance" 

Joshua Walters TED talk on bipolar
A TED talk on bipolar and being 'just manic enough' by Joshua Walters. Image from TED.

Probably one of the most eccentric speakers that I've ever seen on TED, Joshua Walters has been dealing with bipolar - and a consequent onslaught of medication - since his teenage years.

However, Joshua doesn't express outright negativity towards his mental illness. Rather, he thinks that progress in the business and creative spheres can come from being "just manic enough"; from using our "mental skilness". Not everyone will agree with Joshua's ideas, I'm sure, but it's refreshing to see a lively and charismatic approach to mental health.

"I could either deny my mental illness... or embrace my mental skilness" 

On schizophrenia: Eleanor Longden - The voices in my head

Eleanor Longden TED talk on schizophrenia
Eleanor Longden talks about "the voices in my head" during this TED talk on schizophrenia. Image from TED.

Eleanor Longden was just an ordinary student, attending lectures and enjoying the fun that came with university, when she started hearing voices. She confided in a friend about this, who persuaded her to talk to the university GP about it. During her appointment, the doctor doodled mindlessly as she related her feelings of low mood and anxiety to him. However, his ears pricked up when she mentioned the recent development. The voices.

Eleanor was drugged, sectioned and labelled schizophrenic, and a low-point followed for her that few of us could ever truly relate to.

However, Eleanor has now earned a BSc and an MSc in psychology, for which she received the highest classifications ever granted by the University of Leeds. Today she is studying for her PhD while lecturing and writing about recovery-oriented approaches to psychosis, dissociation and complex trauma.

Eleanor's story of recovery was exactly what I needed to hear about. In this talk she emphasises that society should ask, "What's happened to you?" rather than, "What's wrong with you?", and explains that this change would make our attitude towards mental health nourishing and supportive rather than oppressive and discriminative.

Eleanor has also given me the most useful advice I could possibly receive for my ongoing problems with OCD: to listen to my compulsions and realise that they reflect subconscious anxieties and insecurities from my past. When I feel that I need to do something in order to prevent my family being hurt, this reflects the fact that I care deeply for them. Thinking like this makes so much sense, but it's something that I never could have come up with on my own.

Voice hearing is a "survival strategy, a sane reaction to insane circumstances"

Could a TED talk a day keep the doctor away? If you've watched any of the talks I've mentioned in this post, let me know in the comments. Also, if you have any talks you think I should add to this list, I'd love to hear from you!

TED Talks for PTSD and Trauma

This post was previously integrated with my TED Talks for Social Anxiety & Shyness post, but I've decided to do some blog spring cleaning. On the original post Helen kindly thanked me for including her TED talk, which I'm very grateful for!

I watch a lot of TED talks, and the ones I've listed here are those that have helped me get to terms with my PTSD a little more. Even if you haven't experienced trauma, these talks may help you to work your way through any difficult aspects of your past.

More TED talks to come soon!

1. Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life

Jane McGonigal TED talks for PTSD
Jane McGonigal on how video games (and particularly Superbetter) can help you through mental health problems. Image from TED.

While this TED talk doesn't mention PTSD, it mentions a tool that can help you deal with your PTSD or trauma symptoms and thought processes. After experiencing a very bad concussion, game designer Jane McGonigal founded Superbetter, an online multiplayer game that lets you set and work towards goals, build resilience, and help you get through transitions and challenges in life. I need to use it more often, but it's great for helping you battle both mental and physical challenges. 

“A traumatic event doesn't doom us to suffer indefinitely. Instead, we can use it as a springboard to unleash our best qualities and lead happier lives.”

2. Helen Abdali Soosan FaganDiagnosed with PTSD and MDD, and managing to get a Ph.D.

Helen Abdali Soosan Fagan TED talk for PTSD
Image from YouTube.

In this talk, Helen speaks about her experience of being diagnosed with PTSD after struggling with severely high blood pressure, confusion and bodily pain that was bad enough for her to be taken into hospital. After her diagnosis, Helen stated: "But I haven't been in a war?" The root cause of PTSD in Helen's case was her move from Iran to America as a child, and the family separation that followed.

With therapy, Helen was able to understand and accept her diagnosis and her past. She reflects, "I needed to be still long enough to let the difficulties go." Helen encourages PTSD sufferers to treat their diagnosis as if they would treat diabetes. It's not necessarily about overcoming the diagnosis, but managing it. Support groups are of utmost importance, as are managing time, stressors, and maintaining a deep connection with yourself and knowing who you are. Yet it's also important to realise that your struggles have helped form you and strengthen you. As Helen states,
My life has been a deeply painful journey. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I wouldn't trade it for anything!

Leslie Morgan Steiner TED talk on abuse
Image frrom YouTube.

A few years ago I was in an unhealthy relationship, and it destroyed the sparse self-esteem that I had at that time. This is why, like so many others, I was drawn to this talk by Leslie Morgan Steiner. This TED talk has probably been one of the most watched and engaged with talks on the website: that's a bit worrying, isn't it?

Yet it also suggests that victims of domestic abuse are gaining the strength to leave and understand why they haven't done so already. Leslie is also the author of Crazy Love, a book that tells her story of domestic abuse.

“The question, ‘Why does she stay?’ is code for some people for, ‘It's her fault for staying,’ as if [domestic violence] victims intentionally choose to fall in love with men intent upon destroying us.”

What do you think about these TED talks? Do you have any others you'd recommend I add to this post?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

8 Authors I Wish Would Write More

We all have a few writers who we simply wish would write more. You know, the authors that we keep tabs on for years on end, waiting for news that they've written another book. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they just keep us waiting. While there's not much that we as readers can do to speed up their writing, a little praise of their existing books (or book, singular) and a wish for more can't be a bad thing.

1. Tan Twan Eng

Tan Twan Eng is a novelist I first heard about after the Booker Prize shortlist for 2012 came out. I decided The Garden of Evening Mists sounded like a novel I'd really enjoy, and it was.

It took me a while to get round to reading Tan Twan Eng's earlier book, The Gift of Rain, but I probably enjoyed it even more.

I adore the simplicity, minimalism, and Buddhist undertones of the author's writing, and reading these books helped me to relax a bit more in my own life. There's something I really love about plots with secluded islands and characters that spend a lot of time meditating - perhaps it's a subtle clue about things that need changing in my own life?

Tan Twan Eng, winner of the Man Asian Prize 2012 and shortlisted for the Booker. Image from The Guardian.

2. Sarah Winman

When God Was a Rabbit must be one of my favourite debut novels. I found it so funny, uplifting and familiar to my own life and childhood, and I'd love it so much if Sarah Winman wrote another book. She's a really talented novelist, and I'm sure my boyfriend would agree: he laughed almost all the way through When God Was a Rabbit.

3. Jonas Jonasson

Even if you only skim through my posts here on the blog, you'll almost certainly know how much I loved The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. This is the book that my Dad kept complaining about because "he couldn't put the bloody thing down", and the novel that my boyfriend spoke about for weeks. During my time working in a book shop I found it to be the perfect book to recommend to all types of customers, and I never had any complaints.

Jonas Jonasson, author of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared. Image from The Telegraph.

4. Matthew Quick

The author of The Silver Linings Playbook, a successful novel-turned-film, is bound to create some more great plots, I think. His most famous novel was so easy to read and its characters so loveable, and I'm really excited to see if he'll write anything similar in the future. 

5. Kathryn Stockett

I think the same about Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. The characters she created in this book were so vibrant and memorable, and it will be interesting to see if she'll write a novel that focuses on another polemical theme (as she did with slavery in The Help).

The film adaptation of The Help, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. Image from

6. J.K. Rowling

I know J.K. Rowling has written the entire Harry Potter series and two novels, but I'd really love more books like The Cuckoo's Calling. Rumour has it that Rowling is already working on the sequel, and I hope it branches out to a Cormoran Strike series. Three books would be the perfect amount, I think. 

7. Stephen Chbosky

It's amazing that Stephen Chbosky has only written The Perks of Being a Wallflower, particularly considering how successful it has become. Google suggests that Chbosky may be working on another novel, so hopefully more information will come out about this soon!

Charlie in the film adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Image from popbopshop.

8. Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a superb biography about an incredible woman who has affected us all in some way, and I'm so glad that Skloot was the one to write it. Could she write an equally wonderful biography about someone else? May she one day turn to fiction?

Are there any writers that you wish would write more? Have you heard anything that I haven't about the authors I've mentioned above? I look forward to hearing from you!

Monday, 30 September 2013

An Extract From Tolstoy Therapy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy for a Fear of Death

This is an extract about The Death of Ivan Ilyich from the bibliotherapy book I'm working on, currently entitled Tolstoy Therapy (is this too predictable?)

I hope to give you more information about it soon, but I have a first draft written and I'm looking to publish it to begin with as a Kindle ebook in the upcoming weeks. It's been a really exciting project so far, and I've had so many great stories to write about!

It'll be wonderful to hear your opinion both on this extract - taken from the chapter on fearing death - and the book as a whole when it's complete. It will include stories (with all names changed and people consulted, including in the extract below) and book recommendations from both myself and others, tips for making the most out of your reading, and a celebration of the favourite hobby I share with most of you: reading!

Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia
Sofia and Leo Tolstoy. Image from The Guardian. 

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain

We will never find out what is to come after living, no matter how hard we try. We may decide to dedicate our lives to trying to find out, but I have a better suggestion: reading great books that help us to  make the most out of life and come to terms with the inevitability of death.

A keen reader from Sweden, Åsa, got in touch to tell me about the positive impact that reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy had on her after her grandmother’s death. Åsa told me that her grandmother’s death took her completely by surprise as, in her own words, her grandmother was an extraordinary woman: “strong in every way, smart, a born leader”. She had been diagnosed with a tumour, but had decided not to tell Åsa and her wider family. Åsa was left with a lot of unanswered questions in her mind, but reading Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich did much to console her and provide answers.

Åsa told me that while Ivan Ilyich is a book about death, it’s also about a man who overcame it. Reading Ivan Ilyich helped Åsa to think from her grandmother’s perspective and understand that she probably didn’t tell her family about her tumour for fear of burdening them. Although her grandmother could have lived a little bit longer with chemotherapy and medicines, Åsa realised that her grandmother didn’t want to choose this path, but rather accept death and its inevitability. Åsa concluded by saying, “Reading Ivan Ilyich opened my eyes, I understood something about my own life.”

Leo Tolstoy was a writer who frequently struggled with thoughts of death. During the autumn of 1869, when he made a trip to the Penza province in Russia to inspect some land he was thinking of buying, he found himself awake at two in the morning, exhausted but unable to sleep. Despite feeling physically well, Tolstoy was suddenly gripped by a fear of dying more intense than any he had experienced before, and this produced in him a state of existential anguish he found terrifying. He drew on this memory when he started writing an autobiographical story called Notes of a Madman, although this was never completed. However, a short story entitled The Death of Ivan Ilyich was finished and published, and allows us not only to understand better the author's thoughts towards death, but also consider our own.

Ivan Ilyich lives a carefree life that is "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." Like everyone in his social circle, he dedicates his life to climbing the social ladder and seeking the bliss that he believes is found at the top of this. Although he is in an unhappy marriage with a wife he finds too demanding, Ivan frequently ignores his family life and focuses his attentions on becoming a magistrate. He is primarily concerned with his own status and the influence of his friends, until he one day falls awkwardly upon hanging curtains for his new home. Being the workaholic that he is, Ivan does not think much of this at first. However, he begins to suffer a pain in his side, and his discomfort increases day by day. This is accompanied by great irritability, which culminates in his wife insisting that he see a physician. A diagnosis that is devoid of hope follows, and Ivan is forced to face his own mortality. 

Ivan’s main source of comfort becomes his servant Gerasim: the only person in his life who does not fear death, and the only one other than his own son who seems to show compassion for him. As Ivan's friendship with Gerasim becomes closer, Ivan begins to question whether he has, in fact, lived a good and moral life. Gerasim guides Ivan in his final days, and allows him to realise the difference between an artificial life and an authentic one. At the moment before his death Ivan has several realisations, and a highly moving, philosophical account of mortality is rendered.

This short story not only allows us to confront our own fear of death, but addresses an accompanying concern: the fear that we have not made the most of our life or found meaning in it. We realise that if we make changes now, if we check up on our neighbour or act kindly towards our spouse, we will grow old without the hefty fear of dying on our shoulders. Mindfulness is key in this respect. 

Leo Tolstoy died from pneumonia at the age of eighty-two years old, at Astapovo train station in Russia. His death came only days after he had finally gathered the nerve to secretly leave home and to separate from his wife, renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle in the process. The police tried to limit access to his funeral procession, but thousands of peasants lined the streets at his funeral. 

By reading Ivan Ilyich, we can learn to make the most of our present, understand death's inevitability and our powerlessness over it, and accept the attitudes of others towards dying.

My Top 5 Books for a Fear of Death:
1. The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy
2. The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
3. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
4. Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
5. The Rain Before it Falls - Jonathan Coe