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.