Tuesday, 25 June 2013

What A Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Life: Growing Up, Change, Trauma, and Enemies

What Game of Thrones can teach us about life
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in A Game of Thrones.
  Image source.
I thought I'd hate the TV show Game of Thrones. I'd heard it was full of violence and sex, and despite Steph's frequent praise of both book and TV series, I couldn't understand why women would enjoy it.

Fast forward a couple of months, and my boyfriend and I have caught up with all three series of the TV production, and I've finished the first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (entitled A Game of Thrones). My views have indeed changed. This post will focus on this first book, although I'll probably make passing references to the screen adaptation.

What A Game of Thrones is About

A Game of Thrones can be compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy alongside other fantasy novels. It has knights, castles, war, barbarians, strange gods, made-up languages, and even dragons. However, it also has much more human aspects: love, arranged marriages, and divided families, for instance. I have to warn you too about the murder, conspiracy, incest, and rape that frequently feature.

It's not a novel of enchantment and chivalry, but one of very real fears and worst-case scenarios. We are able to relate to the stories of civil war, the anxieties of debt and infection, and the question of knowing right from wrong. It's realistic, minus the dragons.

Each chapter is dedicated to an individual character's point of view, which allows us to gain a personal insight of the noble houses of Westeros that the series largely focuses on. We also follow several characters beyond "the Wall", set apart from the civilised world, and the life of Daenerys Targaryen across the sea.

What A Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Life

Does Game of Thrones have life lessons we can relate to?
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. Image from the Guardian.
Source: HBO
I enjoyed reading A Game of Thrones primarily because it made me think about my own situation and direction in life. I'm due to start working for a start-up company in Barcelona from September, and this will undoubtedly strike me as a major change. I feel that I will be ready for it, but I could do with some extra courage to help me get there. Reading A Game of Thrones was surprisingly helpful in this respect.

The novel holds a fantastic portrayal of courage, but we can also relate to other elements of the text. Below is a brief outline of ways in which we can relate to A Game of Thrones, although this is my no means extensive.

What A Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Growing Up

Due to tragic circumstances, Arya and Sansa are made to leave their home at Winterfell and mature at a far greater pace than perhaps expected. Their sources of comfort and support leave them, and they must find ways to protect themselves both mentally and physically. Similarly, Daenerys's childhood is cut short, and with time she must also learn to rule and protect both herself and others. Daenerys does not merely adapt to her changed situation, but she becomes powerful enough to truly succeed. I can't say if this continues beyond the first book of the series, but for now, at least, she is a female of admirable strength.

On Changing Ourselves and Others

Alongside the family suffering that the Starks face, Bran deals with great physical change. At first he feels forlorn, hopeless, and pessimistic towards the future, but he eventually finds courage in understanding that his situation could be worse. He also makes do with what he has rather than what he doesn't have, and as a result finds himself capable of activities he thought confined to the past. His sub-story demonstrates that while staying in bed may keep us relatively save and secure, it prevents us from enjoying and learning from all the outside world has to offer.

Characters Facing Trauma

The younger characters of A Game of Thrones witness greatly unsettling and traumatic events that simply cannot be approached in a calm manner. However, they learn to overcome and, perhaps most importantly, accept what they have seen. In response to her dangerous predicament, Arya learns to defend herself. Bran, in a similar way, develops his knowledge of strategy and ruling in order to reinforce the tested strength of Winterfell.

Knowing Friends From Enemies

A Game of Thrones quickly shows that trust cannot be given out freely. It's a novel in which allegiances change, support can frequently be bought, and friends can quickly become enemies. The characters that succeed (and more fundamentally, survive) are generally those that can distinguish their friends from their enemies. Some trials are fair, others are less so. Such characters are often more reluctant to trust others without sufficient ground, but they provide guaranteed back-up for the few they have faith in. Eddard and Catelyn Stark lean towards fairer trials of allegiance, while House Lannister often prioritises power over morality.

This is a novel that differentiates between wanting to act heroically and not always knowing how to do so. Despite the mythical elements of the series, we are exposed to so many feelings and emotions that we can truly relate to, alongside decisions and directions forward that we can learn from. The multiple points of view prove that all characters, no matter how villainous, have their own conflicts and baggage, but they also indicate that success and power can come from the most traumatic and challenging of experiences.

My Rating: 4 Stars
Recommended for: finding courage and strength, overcoming trauma and hardship

Buy A Game of Thrones on Amazon

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Tolstoy's A Calendar of Wisdom: The Best Self-Help Guide for Modern Life?

A Collection of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy
My Scribner edition of A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts
to Nourish the Soul, translated by Peter Sekirin
Despite my love for the great Russian author, until recently I had heard very little about A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy.

This was Tolstoy's last published work, and the book that he considered to be his most important contribution to humanity. A Calendar of Wisdom was widely read in pre-revolutionary Russia, banned and forgotten under Communism, and has only recently gained recognition once more.

I've decided that a blog named Tolstoy Therapy must do its best to raise the awareness of this superb text and guide to living.

As you may expect from the classification in its title as a "calendar", each page of the non-fiction book is dedicated to a particular day of the year. Moreover, the quotes for each day are grouped under a certain theme, be it God, intellect, law, love, faith, temptations, work, or something entirely different.

The original idea for this work appeared to come to Tolstoy in the mid-1880s: in 1884 he wrote about, "a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people".

In his diary on March 15 of that year, he added,

I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people.

In 1885, he wrote in a letter to his assistant,

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker... They tell us what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue... I would like to create a book... in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

Bibliotherapy in Tolstoy's A Calendar of Wisdom
Each page of the text is dedicated to a single day of the
year, and deals with a certain theme (e.g. virtue).
Tolstoy spent fifteen years collecting these thoughts, piecing together quotes that represented a wide variety of philosophical views, cultural backgrounds, and historical periods. Through completing the book, Tolstoy fulfilled a dream he had nourished for many years: that of "collecting the wisdom of the centuries in one book".

The result is a highly accessible, useful guide to life that we could all benefit from having on our bedside tables. I currently make time to read the quotes for the day just before bed, after any other reading that I have been spending time on. I find that this allows me to go to sleep pondering the quotes and forming my own decisions. Needless to say, this habit is a great antidote to nighttime anxiety.

I thought I'd share the quotes for June 18 from A Calendar of Wisdom, when I wrote this post:

Understanding our duty provides us with the understanding of our divine soul. And, too, the understanding of our divine soul gives us the understanding of duty.
There is in our soul something that, if we see it as it is and give it the proper attention, will always give us great pleasure; this something is the moral disposition or quality which was given to us at our creation. ~ Immanuel Kant
People can reach heavenly joy: those pure ones who are filled with the desire for a good life receive pleasure in their body, in their material life. When your mind and your heart are pure, then the divine will be opened for you. ~ Brahmin Indian wisdom
If your heart is filled with virtue, then you will find happiness and beauty. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The voice of your conscience is the voice of God.

Each entry begins and ends with one of Tolstoy's own meditations, and contains other fragments of wisdom and advice in-between. Even if you are not a fan of Tolstoy's fiction, I would certainly recommend this book. It's easy to read, concise, and full of useful guidance for daily life. I have the hardback Scribner edition, as translated by Peter Sekirin, which I've so far found highly accessible and enjoyable.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Regeneration by Pat Barker: Shell Shock, War Poets, and Great Friendships

Postcards of Siegfried Sassoon
Postcards of Siegfried Sassoon. Image from
I always enjoy reading about novelists, poets and characters that I have some sort of connection with. This is perhaps why I enjoyed Regeneration so much: it tells of Siegfriend Sassoon, a poet who was born in Kent, twenty minutes from where my family and I have always lived. Before declining to return to active service, Sassoon threw the ribbon from his Military Cross into the Mersey, the river which I cross by train at least twice a month when seeing my boyfriend in Liverpool. Upon researching the novel further, I found out that William Rivers, the psychiatrist who treats Sassoon and plays a major part in Regeneration, went to the prestigious school where my brother now trains for athletics.

Little facts such as these always make a text more enjoyable for me. Regardless of this factor,  Regeneration is also a remarkable account of war poets, "shell shock", and the doctors that treated it after World War I. In this inspiring and incredibly well-researched novel, Barker characterises both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, alongside their contact at Craiglockhart Hospital following the war.

Sassoon was born to a Jewish father and Anglo-Catholic mother. There was no German ancestry in Siegfried's family; his mother named him Siegfried because of her love of Wagner's operas. He was always a keen hunter, and despite his decoration and reputation, he decided in 1917 to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, which Sassoon would spend years trying to overcome. Regeneration opens with Sassoon's letter to his commanding officer entitled "Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration", that was sent shortly before Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital, near Edinburgh. In Regeneration we see Sassoon as a struggling young man who is both unsure of his position towards the war and his direction in life, and who plays a copious amount of golf.

Wilfred Owen and Regeneration
Wilfred Owen. Image from Wikipedia.
Wilfred Owen, on the other hand, enters the novel as a shy, stuttering character who is insecure towards himself and his writing (or lack of it). Meeting with Sassoon at Craiglockhart, however, marks a great moment of transition and transformation in the life of Wilfred Owen. Sassoon, both in reality and in Barker's blend of fact and fiction, encouraged Owen to dedicate more time to his poetry, and provided a great deal of both criticism and praise. As a part of his therapy at Craiglockhart, Owen's doctor, Arthur Brock, also encouraged Owen to translate his experiences, specifically the experiences he relived in his dreams, into poetry.

The descriptions of shell shock, both in Barker's novel and the poetry produced by Owen and Sassoon, is nothing less than intense. Some of the events witnessed by patients at Craiglockhart are simply unimaginable to most of us. Barker's accuracy in depicting the brutalising effects of trauma on a generation of young men is remarkably done, and we are left unable to doubt the trauma of war. However, what is perhaps most carefully constructed is the implications of the various surgeons and clinicians in the all-consuming effects of war. Army psychiatrist William Rivers, who becomes nothing less than a mentor and guide to Sassoon, is himself a stutterer, and experiences flashbacks and hears noises that makes him closer to his patients than anyone could expect.

Craiglockhart, the hospital in Regeneration
"Nobody arriving at Craiglockhart for the first time could
fail to be daunted by the sheer gloomy, cavernous bulk of
the place." Image from BBC.
Trauma pervades the novel in a manner that is so well-researched and subtly entwined into the wider plot. After reading Regeneration, we cannot help but consider how our own lives would have been affected by global conflict, and question how we may have considered the morality of political decisions. I enjoyed this novel more than Toby's Room, Pat Barker's sequel, and I'm keen to read more of the Regeneration trilogy. As someone who has undergone therapy for PTSD, this novel hit me hard on several occasions, but it really got me thinking about my own symptoms and recovery process. It has also got me wondering about the cause of my own habit of stammering at stuttering at certain times.

Don't hesitate to read this book if you're interested in war poets, mental health, and the morality of destruction and devastation. It's certainly a memorable read.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(An extract from "Dulce et Decorum est" by Wilfred Owen)

My rating: 4.5/5

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

How to Cultivate a Reading Habit (Yes, You Do Have Time to Read)

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other
room and read a book.” ~ Groucho Marx

Find your reading nook. Image from
I went shopping with my Mum and brother last week. We had run out of shops to visit, when I suggested a trip to the bookshop. "Why would I want a book?" asked my brother, who had once made habit of taking a torch to bed so he could re-read the Harry Potter series.

"Reading?" asked my Mum, who was so enthralled by Captain Corelli's Mandolin after her divorce that she finished it in a day, "How could I possibly have time for reading?"

Cultivating a reading habit should not be limited by our perceptions of how much time we have, nor influenced by any other negative factor. We all deserve (and need) time for ourself, and settling down with a good book is one of the best ways to achieve this.

Reading also comes with the added benefits of expanding our knowledge, finding reassurance from characters in similar situations, and becoming aware of different cultures.

I currently ensure that I make time for reading every day, and choose books that positively affect my mental health. Because of literature, I’ve come to understand not only myself better, but also my past experiences. Reading is one of the best ways to find reassurance or to relate to another, particularly when a book is well chosen.

But how can you form a reading habit? Yes, we all have prior engagements to attend to, people to consider, and perhaps a demanding job, but we can still look for empty slots in our day - no matter how small - to fit in a good book.

How to cultivate a reading habit and find motivation

  1. Always carry a book with you. Choose one that you actually enjoy reading, and one that isn't too hard to read small amounts of at a time. Remember to read while you're waiting for appointments, public transport, or during any empty time slots. If the book you're carrying isn't one you look forward to reading, change it.
  2. Make a list of the books you've always wanted to read, or the books you've heard good things about. Carry it with you.
  3. Dedicate set times to reading. Perhaps before lunch, while the kettle is boiling, or in bed before you call it a day.
  4. Start a book blog. Share your literary meditations with others. This is time consuming, and for the people who really love books, but it adds another level to your reading. 
  5. Set goals. I've set myself a target of finishing one hundred books in 2013.
  6. Keep records. Try Goodreads, or perhaps a reading journal.
  7. Read compelling books. And don't worry about "guilty pleasures".
  8. Don't be afraid to give up a book. If you don't find yourself wanting to read beyond the first fifty pages, don't force yourself.
  9. Make it a shared activity. Read at the same time as your partner, or read aloud to your kids.
  10. Think about how much TV you watch. An hour less of soap operas a day could let you finish a novel a week.
  11. Schedule bookshop or library visits. Make this a regular part of your week, and allow yourself to look forward to quietly browsing through recent paperbacks or rare editions. If you have a local library, reading can be great budget activity.
  12. If you find an author or genre you love, find more. Read series, prequels, and similar texts (perhaps look on Goodreads or ask a bookseller for recommendations)
  13. Make it a joyful experience. Settle down with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and class it as dedicated time to treat yourself.
  14. Find your reading nook. Make it comfy, quiet, and free from distractions (laptops and phones included).
  15. Learn to immerse yourself in a good book. After getting the important things done for the day, let yourself focus solely on a good book. Remember that minor chores can wait.

I believe you can always find time to read, even if only five minutes a day, and reap endless benefits from doing so.

Do you have any tips for finding time to read? What about for forming a reading habit?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Edward Thomas: A Poet Who Spoke of England, Depression and Not Belonging

Edward Thomas and depression
The solemn expression of Edward Thomas
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty
Born in 1878, Edward Thomas, the Anglo-Welsh poet and essayist, only turned to writing poetry in 1914, three years before his death in 1917.

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost: a great poetic friendship

His turn to poetry was largely the result of encouragement from Robert Frost, a fellow poet he met in 1913 and grew increasingly closer to in the next two years. Before meeting Frost, Thomas's life was drifting. He was a thirty-four-year-old father of three, stuck in an unsatisfying marriage, and battling intense feelings of depression. He was recognised as a great writer, having produced twenty books of biography and criticism and more than 1,500 book reviews, but he felt uncomfortable criticising the work of others, and wanted to move his work in a new direction.

Robert Frost provided the encouragement and literary support this transition to poetry required. Edward Thomas, the writer who once declared he "couldn’t write a poem to save [his] life", was effectively saved by poetry. Thomas wrote extensively during his period of friendship with Frost, but change was looming.

Thomas was stuck at a crossroads and unsure which way to turn, and this was only made worse by his frequent deliberation and distaste for decision-making (some criticism suggests that Frost's "The Road Not Taken" was directed at Thomas). One option was for Thomas to go to America with Frost, where his son had already moved, and spend a life living, writing, and farming together. The other option - war - seemed such an unlikely decision for Thomas to make: he was anti-nationalist, despised jingoism, and refused to grow "hot" with patriotic love for Englishmen.

But Thomas's friendship with Frost faltered at the final moment, and Thomas enlisted in a war he had never truly believed in. Soon after arriving in France, Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday 1917. It was not direct battle that killed him, but rather the concussive blast wave of one of the last shells fired as he stood to light his pipe. Thomas died a man struggling with long-term depression, literary expression, and his closest relationships. Little did he expect that he would grow to become an iconic English poet.

Edward Thomas's Hampshire countryside
Edward Thomas's Hampshire. Source: The Times

Edward Thomas: nationality and the English countryside

Thomas's poetry so beautifully encapsulates what England means to him, but also questions deeper concerns of belonging and nationality. Thomas felt torn between London, where his work and writing circles were based, and the English countryside that he commemorates in his writing. Yet Thomas's Welsh heritage led him to doubt whether he could truly be "English". He felt that living in England
was “like a homesickness, but stronger”, and the closest he could feel to belonging was by spending time in nature: “I was home: one nationality/ We had, I and the birds that sang,/ One memory” (Home [3] 4-6).

It is the birds and trees that “welcomed [the speaker]” after he had “come back […] from somewhere far” (7-8), perhaps when others didn’t. “Nationality” in this poem is also a fluid and evolving concept, rather than fixed. The migratory thrushes that the speaker relates to (“they knew no more than I/ The day was done” ([17-18]) would have recently returned from Southern Europe, the month being April. This figurative framework of national identity does not allow for displacement; a “single nationality” is constantly shared and members are always “welcomed” back.

I've never found a poet that has better expressed my views of the English countryside, nor one that can depict the complex feelings and emotions I've felt in the past. "Rain" is perhaps the poem by Thomas that resonates most with me, and for that reason I'd like to share it with others:

Rain by Edward Thomas
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Ted Hughes acknowledged Edward Thomas as "the father of us all." Hughes couldn't have been more accurate: Thomas is a poet we could all do well to read, relate to, and learn from.

Relevant Texts:

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

One Year of Therapy Through Tolstoy

Sequestered nooks and bibliotherapy
"The love of learning, the sequestered
nooks..." One of my favourite book quotes!
Image from Pinterest
I wrote my first blog post a year ago today. I had finished my first year of university, and I was left with four months of planned reading and very little else. Blogging made my summer so much more interesting, and allowed my extensive reading to have more of a purpose.

Since then, keeping my blog has allowed me to share my thoughts on books, develop my ideas on literature, and get in touch with some lovely people. I'm certainly glad that I started this website, even though it seemed like a crazy idea to start with.

I may have a celebratory glass of wine today, alongside the mandatory read of a good book. I'm currently reading Regeneration by Pat Barker, and would so far recommend it, particularly to those that are interested war poetry.

I'll be sure to post about it when I'm finished, but for now I'd like to share a few lists.

Firstly, over the last year I've enjoyed reading so many book blogs. I doubt I could mention them all here, but here are a select few bloggers and their homes in the blogosphere (if I've left you out it doesn't mean I'll skip reading your next post!):

Thank you all for consistently writing such interesting and readable reviews!

Next, here are the posts that I enjoyed writing most over the last year:

To all my lovely readers - thank you!

Upcoming posts:
  • Edward Thomas on England, Depression and Not Belonging
  • A Review of Pat Barker's Regeneration
  • The Poets That Influenced Che Guevara

Monday, 3 June 2013

A TED Talk on Books and Bibliotherapy: How Books Can Open Your Mind by Lisa Bu

Lisa Bu and bibliotherapy. Image from blog.ted.com

In her February 2013 TED Talk, Lisa Bu begins by discussing her childhood dreams and ambitions. Lisa trained to be a gymnast, her parents wanted to be an engineer, and she wanted to be a Chinese opera singer. She sent letters to an opera school principal and a radio show, but nothing brought her closer to her personal goal, and she feared a life of second-class happiness.

However, Lisa discusses in this TED talk what helped her to find another calling: books. "I satisfied my hunger for parental advice from this book by a family of writers and musicians" says Lisa about Correspondence in the Family of Fou Lei.

About Jane Eyre, she adds "I found my role model of an independent woman when Confucian tradition requires obedience."

"And I learnt to be efficient from this book" Lisa says about Cheaper by the Dozen.

Lisa goes on to discuss the benefits of reading books in pairs in order to achieve a better understanding of a topic. I've never considered doing this before, but the process certainly makes sense. Lisa explains in the TED talk that the pair of books can be about people who are involved in the same event (for instance Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson and John Adams by David McCullough) or friends with shared experiences. You can also compare the same stories in different genres, or try similar stories from different cultures. There is also the more obvious decision to read your favourite books in two languages if you're bilingual.

For Lisa Bu, literature has allowed her to connect with people both of the past and present, and as a result avoid the possibility of loneliness. It has also led her to realise that having a dream shattered is nothing compared to what many others have suffered. According to Lisa, the main purpose of a dream is not for it to necessarily come true, but for it to show us where passion and happiness come from. Even a shattered dream can achieve this.

Lisa ends her talk on the following note,

"So because of books, I'm here today, happy, living again with a purpose and a clarity, most of the time. So may books be always with you."

This does much to remind me of why books are central to my own life. Reading allows me to realise what decisions I want to make and what goals I wish to follow, but it also enables me to acknowledge my past and the impact it has had on my present. 

A library is a necessity, not a luxury
A lovely library quote! Image from Pinterest
I believe that books have helped my PTSD far more than any therapy could have, and for this reason I've decided to spend this summer investigating the concept of "Reading for Wellbeing" a little more. I'll be sure to post about any projects I undergo, and I may well enlist your help and advice!

To end this post, I'd like to thank all the lovely readers that have shared the books that have helped them or improved their sense of wellbeing.

Their suggestions have been added to my A-Z bibliotherapy recommendations page, and I have linked back to their respective blogs. Suggestions are still welcome, however! I hope that the page will prove useful for your book searches and those of new readers.