Wednesday, 23 December 2015

8 books to add to your Kindle this winter (featuring deals, award winners, and simply great reads)

You can’t beat a proper paperback, but sometimes downloading a book on your Kindle just makes more sense.

If you’re travelling, it’s silly to lug around what can only be described as a fully-fledged library. You might also want something new to read straight away, and not have time to call at a bookshop. And there’s often deals to consider too, particularly if you’re just looking for a quick read.

As you settle into a sofa for the colder weather, here are eight praiseworthy Kindle books to unwind with for 2015 and 2016.

1. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami 

$7.51 / £4.99

I recently read A Wild Sheep Chase during a lone weekend adventure to Chamonix in France. In typical Murakami form, the novel draws upon themes of hiding away and having lots of time for contemplation (and wine). There’s snow, too.

As you might remember, I recently quoted some of my favourite lines from A Wild Sheep Chase (about packing a bag and going on a trip).

This is the book that first launched the author's international reputation, but another recent Murakami read of mine (and recommendation) is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his non-fiction memoir.

2. Best in Travel 2016: The Best Trends, Destinations, Journeys & Experiences for the Year Ahead

$10 / £6.64

Explore the world from your armchair with a Lonely Planet book and nurture your wanderlust for 2016. Also, if you’re in the UK, the following Lonely Planet books are on Kindle Unlimited at the moment (meaning free for Prime subscribers!)

3. Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

$6.01 / £0.00 for Kindle Unlimited UK

This wasn't a typical choice of novel for me, but it was definitely easy-going and relaxing for my trip from Switzerland to England this December.

The plot - woman spontaneously goes abroad, escapes life in Chicago - is a bit of a conscious spin on Eat, Pray, Love, but the novel's jokey and not-too-serious nature also reminded me of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, a book I've always said great things about.

Life and Other Near Death Experiences is a story about seizing life and ditching what others expect of you. It will make you laugh. It will make you ugly cry. And it will make you want to live your own life to its greatest potential. —HelloGiggles

4. The Girl in the Spider's Web (Millennium series Book 4) by David Lagercrantz

$10.56 / £6.99

It may not be one of the Stieg Larsson originals, but it’s hard to resist the allure of a book that continues the story of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Salander and Blomkvist have survived the authorship transition intact and are just as compelling as ever . . . Fans of Stieg Larsson’s captivating odd couple of modern detective fiction will not be disappointed. —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

5. The Martian by Andy Weir

$5.25 / £4.99

If you haven’t watched the film yet, why not enjoy a few hours snuggled on the sofa with the book by Andy Weir? The same can apply if you have watched it already: Christmas can be a good time for book-movie comparison discussions!

the novel is a tightly constructed and completely believable story of a man’s ingenuity and strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Riveting. —David Pitt, Booklist

6. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

$9.02 / £5.99

Celeste Ng's debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, is a wonderful book. It won the Amazon Book of the Year Award in 2014, with their Senior Books Editor, Chris Schluep, sharing the following:

From the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s stunning debut, we know that the oldest daughter of the Chinese-American Lee family has died. What follows is a novel that explores alienation, achievement, race, gender, family, and identity--as the police must unravel what has happened to Lydia, the Lee family must uncover the sister and daughter that they hardly knew. There isn’t a false note in this book, and my only concern in describing my profound admiration for Everything I Never Told You is that it might raise unachievable expectations in the reader. But it’s that good. Achingly, precisely, and sensitively written.

7. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

$6.13 / £4.07

I love Tan Twan Eng's writing, both in The Gift of Rain and his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. Perhaps my favourite book on my Kindle, The Gift of Rain is an enchanting novel, right from its opening lines:

I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me. This was back in a time when I did not believe in fortune-tellers, when the world was not yet filled with wonder and mystery...
The novel tells the story of Philip Hutton, a boy of mixed Chinese-English heritage, and his relationship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat who teaches him aikido. As war looms and the Japanese invade, both Endo and Philip find themselves torn between their loyalty to each other and their respective countries and families. It's a beautiful novel, and my Kindle edition is covered in highlights. Here's a favourite:

To have memories, happy or sorrowful, is a blessing, for it shows we have lived our lives without reservation. —The Gift of Rain

8. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

$5.71 / £0.99
Seven gunmen storm Bob Marley’s house, machine guns blazing. The reggae superstar survives, but the gunmen are never caught.

If we're going to have time to conquer the Man Booker Prize winner for 2015, it might as well be at Christmas! I love this review by The Economist: "Manages consistently to shock and mesmerise at the same time…Best of all is the dialogue …its musicality is tinged with menace…this tale of a country and its people ravaged and transformed by tragedy packs quite a punch."

What are you reading on your Kindle at the moment? Share any exciting discoveries and deals with other readers in the comments!

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Reading tip: how to get your Kindle highlights and notes on your computer (and sync to Evernote)

As a general rule, I love paperbacks. And of course hardbacks. But I like reading on my Kindle because it’s portable.

Also, I highlight an obscene amount in the books I read that I read, and I have a way of importing these highlights into an easier format on my laptop. This comes in very useful when it comes to writing an article, or if I feel like simply reliving the magic of a book.

If you’re curious, I use a Google Chrome extension called to import Kindle highlights and notes. It costs a tiny amount per month ($2 I think), but it's useful and appeals to my love for order (no affiliation whatsoever). So I'd say it's worth it.

How to set up to export your Kindle notes

  • After installing the extension, make sure you’re logged into your and account in Chrome.
  • Then press the 'full import; button if it’s the first time you import your highlights, or the ‘quick import’ button if you just want to import your latest annotations.

It takes a few minutes to do its thing (it seems to have got quicker in the last few weeks though), but soon you get a lovely list of all of your Kindle highlights and notes.

On the website, it also suggests that you can automatically sync your notes if you use the Apple or Android Kindle app.

Add your Kindle highlights to Evernote (or Word, Excel, PDF)

You can then export the list of highlights. I choose to do this to Evernote (a digital filing cabinet for all of my notes, ideas, and things to read later), but there are other options too.

After syncing with Evernote, you can just press “integrate with Evernote” each time you want to export new annotations.

Then you can get a new note on Evernote for each book, with all of your notes and clippings within it (or whatever options you choose). The page or location can be stored for each highlight, and if you’re looking for a quote in future you can just use the Evernote search function.

For me, it's great to have my Kindle highlights in one place and ready to search through–it does simplify a lot. Hopefully some of you also find this useful! Back to books in my next article...

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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Haruki Murakami on travelling light (and just getting up and going)

When I’m travelling, I like to read Haruki Murakami. I like the clean writing style of his books, but also their otherworldliness. Last weekend I spent two nights in Chamonix, travelling over the Swiss border into France, and finished up A Wild Sheep Chase before getting the train home.

It was a good case of reading material matching my environment: as the snow tumbled down in the Alps to kick off the ski season, Murakami’s protagonist was holed up in a run-down house as the first snow fell. If he waited on the hill much longer, he’d be stuck there for winter.

I highlighted one excellent paragraph at the start of the novel that's on travelling. In particular, it’s about packing light and deciding to just get up and go. Here it is:

Boarding a long-distance train without any luggage gave me a feeling of exhilaration. It was as if while out taking a leisurely stroll, I was suddenly like a dive-bomber caught in a space-time warp. In which there is nothing: no dentist’s appointments, no pending issues in desk drawers, no inextricably complicated human involvements, no favors demanded. I’d left that behind, temporarily. All I had with me were my tennis shoes with their misshapen rubber soles. They held fast to my feet like vague memories of another space-time.

It’s a good reminder not just to travel–and travel light–but to pop a Murakami novel in your bag before leaving. A Wild Sheep Chase is a great choice.

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Friday, 6 November 2015

Is there anything to gain from reading a novel as sad as A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara?

I mentioned in my last article, 18 recommended books for winter, that I was reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I've now finished it, and–to sum up my immediate thoughts–it was turmoil.

A Little Life is a painfully sad book, and I wonder if many other readers feel prepared for this. A considerable amount of them were probably, like me, drawn to it for its near-win of the Man Booker Prize 2015.

The novel has over 700 pages, and not a small percentage are filled with graphic descriptions of the physical, sexual and mental abuse suffered by the protagonist, Jude St. Francis.

Jude is one of the four bright and ambitious central male characters, who meet at college as randomly assigned roommates and remain crucial parts in each other lives. As they grow up, they become impossibly close, and are defined by their participation in the group as well as disorientated by its lapses.

By Jude's side there's Willem, a waiter with aspirations to become an actor; J.B., who has the confidence to believe he will become a renowned painter; and Malcolm, who struggles to balance his love for architecture with his father's wishes.

Perhaps unexpectedly and even unbelievably, each member of the group is successful professionally. However, while some characters surge forwards in their wider lives, others stagnate.

There's also the persistent burrowing of the past and its traumas into the plot. Despite being such a formidable and talented litigator, Jude is a broken man. With all of the terrible things that were done to him, it seems foolish to expect no repercussions. But despite this, A Little Life continues to hint at the possibility of a happy ending.

There's the home built by Jude and Willem that is surrounded by spring bulbs and wildflowers, as well as the beautiful art produced by the group. There's also the warmth of Jude finding his part in a family.
One weekend shortly after they had moved in, they spent two days making their way through the forests before and behind the house, planting lilies of the valley near the mossy hillocks around the oak and elm trees, and sowing mint seeds throughout. They knew Malcolm didn’t approve of their landscaping efforts—he thought them sentimental and trite—and although they knew Malcolm was probably right, they also didn’t really care.

The novel's cruelest moments are when happiness is suddenly extinguished for one character; the most devastation is found in the implications of these moments on the other three.

It's such an infuriating book, but I think that only a talented author could make me want to swear, weep, and shout about how cruel a book it is. It's not badly-written by any means, but the plot is exhausting.

A single trigger warning doesn't really suffice. Don't read A Little Life and expect an easy read with a happy ending.

However, it's worth noting that the novel does possess beauty, inspiration, and–at times–a glimmer of hope. It's a representation of life, albeit a very hard one, and I'm glad to have read it.

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

18 books for winter: a selection of feel-good novels, big books, and classics to enjoy during colder weather

With lazier days and more time indoors, winter comes with the distinctive benefit of having more time to spend with a good book.

Sometimes a long book - with a hefty list of characters and a inner universe that's hard to exit - is the ideal companion to while away the hours with. At other times, a mood-boosting and feel-good novel is a welcome antidote to the gloomy weather outside. Or you may be longing for the satisfaction of finishing a classic.

Whatever your mood and literary appetite, here are a few novels to get you thinking about winter reading plans.

Immerse yourself in the intricate world of a big book

With War and Peace being so high on my list of best-loved novels (a book I tend to read in summer), it's perhaps not unexpected that other big books follow close behind.

1. Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Normally seven minutes of another person's company was enough to give her a headache so she set things up to live as a recluse. She was perfectly content as long as people left her in peace. Unfortunately society was not very smart or understanding.

2 & 3. The Secret History and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Secret History seems to be on every winter reading list. While it is an excellent novel to spark a hunger for classics and mystery-solving over the winter months, you could also give The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt's third, most recent, and very beautiful novel - a try.

I've been buried in this novel all weekend: a story of four young men who, having met at college, grow and navigate the realities of their past and present in a web fraught with difficulty, yet never far from art, beauty, and acquiring greater knowledge. 

It's painfully sad at times (at many times) and should come with a trigger warning, but the novel says so much about love, friendship, and what we dedicate our lives to. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015, and arguably a good pick if you like Donna Tartt's novels.

One of the ultimate books about books, The Shadow of the Wind is a beautiful book - set in Barcelona - to read in winter, whether read in the original Spanish or in translation.
Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.

6, 7, 8. His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Harry Potter series

You could also delve into the expansive and magical worlds of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, C.S. Lewis's wintery Narnia, or J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts.

Spend a cosy weekend with a lighthearted novel

9. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

If the Queen of England were truly to stumble upon a mobile library while in pursuit of her corgis, Alan Bennett's imagining would undoubtedly be the result.
What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren't long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

10. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

A marvellous first-hand account of an American in Britain.
By the time I had finished my coffee and returned to the streets, the rain had temporarily abated, but the streets were full of vast puddles where the drains where unable to cope with the volume of water. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you would think that if one nation ought by now to have mastered the science of drainage, Britain would be it.

11. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project quickly became a favourite lighthearted novel of mine when I read it in early 2014. Meet Don Tillman, a professor of genetics whose talent lies in cultivating order and certainly not romance. Follow his trials, failures, and transformations, and turn your life around a little in the process too.

12. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
There are only two things I can do better than most people. One of them is to make vodka from goats’ milk, and the other is to put together an atom bomb.
13. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

In Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette, the protagonist flees her trivial anxieties of everyday American life for Antarctica. This makes for a good plot to immerse yourself in while imagining your own winter escape.

Find wisdom in a literary classic

14. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.

15. The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

As Holmes himself would probably encourage as it gets chilly, dedicate a few hours to getting as comfortable as possible, putting your feet up, and making some deductions.

16. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A classic text for parenting, morality, and snowmen-building.
Atticus strolled over to Miss Maudie’s sidewalk, where they engaged in an arm-waving conversation, the only phrase of which I caught was ‘… erected an absolute morphodite in that yard! Atticus, you’ll never raise ’em!’
17. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

This is my favourite by Charles Dickens: a novel full of life lessons, although one that never fails to sadden me somewhat. I still come back to it time and again.
Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.

18. Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners, a short story collection, is where it all begins for James Joyce. If I were to start my journey into Joyce's fiction once more, it would be cold outside, I'd have a lot of time to spare, and I'd have a very open mind. And perhaps a measure of whisky on hand. If you enjoy the experience, I have a lot of good things to say about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man too.

You might also like a read of...

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Saturday, 24 October 2015

The factors behind Churchill's powerful speeches: studying history, working smart, and being different

Winston Churchill in RAF uniform, c. 1940. The
UK National Archives.
As Bobette Buster explains in Do Story, Winston Churchill's ongoing prominence in British and international history owes much to his legendary speeches. In 1940, all seemed lost for the British Army. The Battle of Dunkirk had been, according to Churchill, a “colossal military disaster”, and the British were left entirely defenceless on the beaches of Dunkirk. Yet Hitler did not press down when Britain was at its weakest.

In the summer of 1940, a hastily assembled armada of 850 British boats - destroyers, fishing boats, lifeboats and pedalos - sailed to and from France in what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. 338,000 soldiers (minus all weapons, equipment, and armour) were ferried back to the British coastline, many of them on pleasure craft.

Churchill spoke to the nation,

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end ... We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing- grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

And later, 

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.

The US radio journalist Edward R. Murrow reported back to the States, saying, ‘Churchill mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.’

During the Blitz and Luftwaffe attacks (these reached a near-daily frequency in the summer of 1940), Churchill compared the young airmen to "knights of old" jousting in the sky. His speeches, broadcasted by the BBC and listened to by Brits gathered around radios, kept up morale when at any other time it would have failed.

Bobette Buster writes towards the end of Do Story,

Stories, told well and acted upon by one generation, ignite the next generation to greatness: because they have heard with their own ears, and seen with their own eyes, what courage can achieve, namely that each individual, emboldened, strengthened and established in their own courage, passes this on to another – like a great Olympic relay race. This was how the war was won.

How did Churchill become such a powerful speaker, thinker, and linguistic craftsman?

1. He spent time in solitude

Churchill endured several ‘wilderness periods’ that were marked by solitude during his life, starting with his lonely childhood in which he was largely ignored by his parents. There's a great account of these years in the Roy Jenkins biography of Churchill (which I'm enjoying as an audiobook), although no biographer could miss this.

2. He studied history

Churchill devoured history, reading Edward Gibbon’s eight-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, MacAulay’s 12-volume History of England, as well as a hundred volumes of the British Annual Register. By retreating into the past, he adopted a vision of modernity that was reinforced with strength, focus, and courage. During the darkest moments of World War II and his wider life (that was often fraught with difficulty), he thought about the resilient individuals who had endured equally trialling moments.

3. He wanted to share his inspired vision

On 29 October 1941, Churchill spoke to Harrow School (where he had once been a student):
Surely, what we have gone through in this period – I am addressing myself to the School – surely from this period of ten months, this is the lesson: Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

4. He knew how he thought and worked best

Churchill is known to have summoned his secretaries at any hour of day, ready to write down his speeches while he paced the room, spoke out loud, and awaited the typewritten draft. By understanding how we worked best, rather than attempting to adhere to any conventional alternative, he increased his potential of achieving high-quality results.

5. He knew that he was different, and didn't attempt to change this 

Winston Churchill stood apart not only in his working style, but in most other respects too. He was one of few to warn of Hitler's dangerous ascent to power that loomed on the horizon. His leadership is also more synonymous with champagne, cigars, and liquor than perhaps any other.

The result? A powerful biography to be inspired by

We could say that Churchill was a product of his upbringing, self-education, willingness to step outside the norm, and self-awareness. By reading the biographical work on his life we can capture a glimpse of the workings behind his oratory and resilience, which can only provide our own lives with a little extra courage.

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms": 10 reasons to tell your story, as inspired by Bobette Buster's Do Story

Monday, 28 September 2015

Homer as a "surprisingly accurate observer of anatomy": The Iliad, injury, and mortality rates

No one can hurry me down to Hades before my time, but if a man's hour is come, be he brave or be he coward, there is no escape for him when he has once been born. - The Iliad
Few readers - or academics - could have read The Iliad with more care than P. B. Adamson has.

As a historian of military medicine, he went through Homer's epic poem and listed every single cut and injury, together with the weapon of cause, and whether the wound was fatal or not. 

The Wrath of Achilles (1819), by Michel Drolling

I read about this in Gavin Francis' excellent Adventures in Human Being: a hugely interesting exploration of the body, one part at a time, with frequent intersections from art, literature, history, and broader science.

As Gavin Francis writes of Homer,
The author of The Iliad was a surprisingly accurate observer of anatomy. [...] There are some medically qualified Homer enthusiasts who have gone so far as to propose him as an early battlefield medic. Repeated through The Iliad are careful accounts of spear wounds, arrow strikes and sword blows, which take care not just to describe the part of the body that has been wounded, but the physiological effects of those wounds and, on occasion, specific treatments.
While The Iliad is not a historical document, something that Adamson fully acknowledges, his findings are fascinating nonetheless.

Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis,
published 2015.

Form of attack 

41 per cent of those hit by a stone in Homer's epic end up dead. Archery delivers poorer accuracy than close-up violence: 74 per cent mortality as opposed to 100 per cent for swords and 97 per cent for spear thrusts.

The legs

The legs of Homer's characters are rarely injured, and there are perhaps two main reasons for this. Firstly, the head, neck and trunk are generally the parts of the body aimed for. Secondly, during the Trojan War, men would frequently be fighting thigh-deep in the bodies of their fallen comrades, from the back of a waist-high chariot, or even from the protection of their ships.

The arms 

When the arms are damaged, it’s usually because they are being raised in defence, or injured while themselves raised in violence. 

As Gavin Francis notes in Adventures in Human Being, these patterns are still seen today: when assessing victims of domestic abuse, doctors often check the forearms first, as these are typically raised when warding off an attacker.

Violence and the passing of time

Adamson also explores changes in the form of attack (largely due to developed technology and machinery) and consequent injury, alongside advances in medicine. 

Spears were most deadly during the Trojan War (the setting of The Iliad), while swords had become the most fatal weapon by the time of the Romans described by Virgil in The Aeneid.

From the Crimean War, to WWI, to the present

Despite the horrific squalor and brutality of the Crimean War, the mortality rate from injuries was 26 per cent. 

A similar rate applies to British troops in the First World War. Of two and a quarter million soldiers, under six hundred thousand died as a result of their injuries. 

In World War I, Adamson shows that at their worst, shells and bombs turn up a mortality rate of 29 per cent. This is less than the mortality rate for thrown stones described in The Iliad.

The topic of research is brutal, but brutality - like the fragility of the human body - is hard to gloss over.

But what are men, but leaves that drop from their branches to the earth? Apollo’s speech, The Iliad, Book XXI, v 540

P. B. Adamson. "A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Weapons in the Effectiveness of Producing Battle Casualties", Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps 123 (1977) 93–103.

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Thursday, 24 September 2015

Tolstoy on doing "a lot of bad things, without wishing to - simply from imitating grown-ups"

When researching Tolstoy, I find myself noticing a common theme of failure: of not being quite good enough, of not carrying out goals, and of getting into all kinds of trouble.

In War and Peace, there's Pierre's bumbling insecurity and failure to live up to expectations in the early stages of the novel, culminating in the policeman-tied-to-a-bear incident.

Like Pierre, Tolstoy also suffered from peer pressure in his own life. This was namely the influence of the most good-looking of his brothers, Sergey, who had a reputation for good humour and singing continually (as described in Rosamund Bartlett's biography). 

In his memoirs, Tolstoy admits that he “actually wanted to be him”, and as they entered adolescence, Tolstoy made the bad decision to follow Sergey's choices. 

After Tolstoy turned fourteen in August 1842, Sergey and another of his brothers, Nikolay, took him for the first time to a brothel. As he later admitted to a friend, after his first sexual experience he stood by the woman’s bed and wept. 

Tolstoy regretted the lack of moral guidance during his teenage years, and confided in his diary on 1 January 1900 that: 

No moral rules were instilled into me at all - none; yet round about me grown-ups were self-assuredly smoking, drinking and leading a dissolute life [...] And I did a lot of bad things, without wishing to - simply from imitating grown-ups.

Critic Lisa Zunshine describes Pierre in War and Peace as a "conscious little rock" for having no idea why he acts the way he does and allowing his sensual desires to triumph over rationality.

Much the same could be said for Tolstoy. Yet because of this, Tolstoy and his fiction seem so real. Failure couldn't be more human.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms": 10 reasons to tell your story, as inspired by Bobette Buster's Do Story

Bobette Buster, a story consultant, lecturer and screenwriter, covers a huge amount in the 112 pages of Do Story

The book - one of the "inspirational pocket guidebooks" by the independent publishing house The Do Book Company - is a beautifully inspiring exploration of storytelling, but is perhaps more so an encouragement to accept vulnerability and open up about ourselves.

This is one of the reasons why I started this website back in 2012, as well as a huge incentive to keep writing. 

But there are many reasons to tell stories, as Do Story explores. Here are some of them. Perhaps use them as encouragement to open up to a friend, think about the storyline of your life so far, or start off by journaling. 

After all, as the wonderful quote by Muriel Rukeyser (and shared in Do Story) goes: "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Some reasons to tell your stories (they're much more important than you think)

1. Stories impact everything we do:
How well you tell your story can make the difference to anything you do – whether that’s convincing someone to love you, buy something you’ve made, or give something of themselves; or how well you make your way in the world; or, simply, in sharing who you are.
2. Stories connect us by illuminating common ground.

3. By telling and hearing stories we become inspired. We can envisage a better life for ourselves and become more courageous.

4. Stories provide clarity. They help us to understand our feelings and interpret the world around us.

5. Stories let us share our vision of ourself, our experience, and the world.

6. Stories develop our self-esteem. As Bobette Buster shares, it's thought that the more a child knows his family’s ‘story’ – the better informed he is about his family and obstacles they have overcome in order to survive and thrive – the ‘stronger a child’s sense of control over his life, the higher his self-esteem’.

7. As Bobette Buster says, stories are "prescriptions for courage":
In short, stories are prescriptions for courage. They illustrate how to run the race. And win. We are not born with courage. We may possess bravado, even arrogance. Youth normally does. But courage is a quiet, spiritual muscle discovered only when you face your greatest fear. Stories embolden, strengthen, and establish how we can become our very best.
8. By talking about the turning points in our lives, we can nurture the possibility of transformation.

9. Storytelling gives us a chance to discover who we are. 

10. Our stories make us unique and exceptional. We're the ones who can share them.

Own your own narrative, risk your vulnerability, and tell your stories well. Do Story provides brilliant help for the journey.

If you like Do Books, you might also like the 99u book series. They're both inspiring and beautifully-produced additions to a bookshelf.

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Monday, 21 September 2015

"Works which made an impression": Leo Tolstoy's favourite books from each stage of his life

Tolstoy, 1895. Published by Cassell and Co, 
NY, 1911.
In 1891, a Petersburg publisher (who was undergoing the impressive feat of asking 2,000 influential luminaries for their favourite books) contacted Leo Tolstoy to ask about the books that had
influenced him.

Somewhat characteristically considering his love for lists, Tolstoy grouped his recommendations into the five stages of his life that he had covered so far, up to the age of 63. For each stage, books were also categorised as "great", "v. great", and "enormous".

The result is the following, as included in R.F. Christian's wonderful collection of Tolstoy's Letters: Volume II (he has also published Tolstoy's diaries in two volumes).

The letter opens with a disclaimer - “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete" - and the heading, "WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION".

Childhood to the age of 14 or so

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman
Pushkin’s poems: Napoleon

"V. great":
The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky

The story of Joseph from the Bible
Russian byliny folk tales: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich

Age 14 to 20

Tales of Good and Evil by Nikolai Gogol: Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect
The Conquest of Mexico by William Prescott

"V. great":
A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne
Nouvelle Héloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Die Räuber by Friedrich Schiller
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
Polinka Sachs by Aleksandr Druzhinin
The Hapless Anton by Dmitry Grigorovich
A Hero for our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Viy" from "The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol"
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Age 20 to 35

Poems by F.T. Tyutchev
Poems by Koltsov
The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer (read in Russian)
Poems Afanasy Fet
Phaedo and Symposium by Plato (read by Tolstoy in Cousin’s translation)

"V. great":
Hermann and Dorothea by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Age 35 to 50

Novels of Mrs. [Henry] Wood
Novels of George Eliot
Novels of Anthony Trollope

"V. great":
The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek)
The byliny
Xenophon’s Anabasis

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Age 50 to 63

Discourse on religious subject by Theodore Parker
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons
“The Essence of Christianity” by Ludwig Feuerbach

"V. great":Book of Genesis (in Hebrew)
Progress and Poverty by Henry George
Confucius and Mencius

All the Gospels in Greek
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
“Lalita Vistara” by Rajendralala Mitra
Lao-Tzu [Tolstoy read the French translation of S. Julien]

If you enjoyed a first glance at Tolstoy's skill for lists, you might also appreciate his Calendar of Wisdom, or his collection of quotations that he believed to be his most important contribution to humanity. There are also his "Rules of life", including "Visit a brothel only twice a month"

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Saturday, 12 September 2015

Nick Hornby: our appetite for books is the "literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes"

Published in 2004, the book is a collection of Hornby's "Stuff
I've Been Reading" columns in The Believer. 
Our feelings, ambitions, and anxieties often influence what we choose to read, and rightly so. In books we find reassurance, motivation, and kindred spirits. So when I came across this quote from Nick Hornby, I couldn't help but enjoy it:

I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.

Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

In order to cultivate an inspiring, calming, intellectually nourishing reading habit, we can't just pick up anything. Especially not something we think we're "meant" to read (that's a terrible idea–please try not to do it, and I'll do the same).

Think about where you are in life and what that means for your literary appetite. If you start something and you can't get into it, move on. If you like The Hunger Games, that's no problem at all. We're not always ready for Proust, sometimes we just need a heady book binge.

Reading isn't about ticking boxes, it's about exploring how the stories you read transform your own. Your time is precious; reading time more so.

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Sunday, 6 September 2015

"A hunter knows when to quiet his mind": Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova, and a defence of solitude

I wrote in my last article about the classical scholar Edith Hamilton, who wrote of Aeschylus: "Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life".

Since I published that, I've moved to Switzerland. It was a sudden decision, largely due to being fortunate enough to get a quick job offer, but I think it was a good one. I'm in the middle of the country, in a Swiss-German canton, and surrounded by lots of mountains and a beautiful lake.

Life is quite hectic as I settle in, but it's a welcome reminder of the potential of solitude to help me to focus and come to terms with a new routine. 

My decision to prioritise time alone made think me of Sherlock Holmes, of whom Watson says in Hound of the Baskervilles:

I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend in those hours of intense mental concentration during which he weighed every particle of evidence, constructed alternative theories, balanced one against the other, and made up his mind as to which points were essential and which immaterial.
In Maria Konnikova's Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, she writes of Holmes's pursuit of solitude:

A hunter knows when to quiet his mind. If he allows himself to always take in everything that is there for the taking, his senses will become overwhelmed. They will lose their sharpness. They will lose their ability to focus on the important signs and to filter out the less so. For that kind of vigilance, moments of solitude are essential.
If you need to focus or simply calm your senses, consider sitting quietly for a while and just thinking. Or, perhaps, reading a little something by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Saturday, 8 August 2015

"All things are at odds when God lets a thinker loose on this planet": Edith Hamilton and sexism in education, succeeding as a woman, and exploring like the Greeks

Edith Hamilton visiting Greek ruins, 1957. Photo by
James Whimore.

In 1958, when Edith Hamilton was ninety-one years old, Life magazine declared her to be the world's “greatest living woman classicist". She lived to the age of ninety-five, and was described by The New York Times as the classical scholar who "brought into clear and brilliant focus the Golden Age of Greek life and thought ... with Homeric power and simplicity in her style of writing".

Describing her childhood in Indiana, she said, 

My father was well-to-do, but he wasn't interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds. 

Her father guided her towards the Classics, and, when she was seven years old, he began teaching her Latin, then French, German, and Greek.

Edith travelled with her sister, Alice, to Germany to study humanities and classics at Leipzig, but discovered that women were still not allowed to earn a doctoral degree. The situation didn't improve when she moved to the University of Munich, either. 

Alice writes in her biography that when Edith arrived, "she was forced instead to sit on a chair up on the platform beside the lecturer, facing the audience, so that nobody would be contaminated by contact with her."

She remembered Edith saying, "The head of the University used to stare at me, then shake his head and say sadly to a colleague, 'There now, you see what's happened? We're right in the midst of the woman question.'"

Yet Edith went on to write several landmark texts on the classics, including The Greek Way (1930). It was here, in her earliest exploration of "the calm lucidity of the Greek mind", that she wrote of Aeschylus,

Life for him was an adventure, perilous indeed, but men are not made for safe havens. The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory.

This is a wonderful quote–one of my favourites–and is included in David Brooks's The Social Animal. If you hadn't read this, it's a superb "story" of the lives of two fictional characters that is intersected with psychological, biological and sociological explanations of their motives, growth and discoveries as they progress through life.

To reference another quote from Hamilton, "All things are at odds when God lets a thinker loose on this planet" (The Greek Way).

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Friday, 31 July 2015

The power of a sunset: how Viktor Frankl & Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov are lifted from hardship by the beauty of nature

Despite experiencing unimaginable hardship during the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl describes in Man’s Search for Meaning how he was able to admire the beauty of a sunset like never before:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.

This experience links to Viktor Frankl's concept of logotherapy, a treatment literally meaning “therapy through meaning” that is based on the premise that we are motivated by an inner pull to find a meaning in life. Essentially, life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

I find it interesting that in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov has a similar experience to Frankl when he is falsely imprisoned for arson. One morning, Pierre recognises the awe of,
a sudden glint of light in the east followed by the sun’s rim rising majestically from behind a cloud, and the domes and crosses, the hoar-frost, the horizon and the river all merrily sparkling in the new light

Despite his captivity, Pierre develops an awareness of his self and surroundings in contrast with his earlier absentmindedness and desire for distraction. As a result, he is able to recognise the beauty of nature around him. This leads to "a new surge of strength and vitality, the like of which he had never known before", which only expands "as the hardships of his plight had gone on increasing".

As Andrew Kaufman describes in Give War and Peace a Chance,
Suddenly there is no better place to be–no world to save, no utopia to create, no alcohol or beautiful woman or poker game in which to seek intoxication [...]

Instead, circumstances force Pierre to “plant his feet firmly on the ground, and live, like [the peasant Platon Karataev], in the here and now”.

Look around. If you spot “a sudden glint of light”, try to savour it for a moment.

Read more:
Logotherapy and stoicism in Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

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Friday, 24 July 2015

Reading The Great Gatsby when you can't sleep, as in Donna Tartt's The Secret History

I've posted before about insomnia and the books that might help to alleviate it. However, sometimes nothing seems to work. If you struggle with insomnia too, you might find this quote from Donna Tartt's The Secret History resonant. It mentions F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as just one of the many books referenced in Tartt's novel.

The sleepless character in The Secret History is Richard Papen: the narrator who belongs to an elite group of six close-knit classics students. The novel is a stunning tale of destruction and creation and irrationality and rationality, and is in many ways akin to a Greek tragedy. Do read it if you get a chance.

Nothing is lonelier or more disorienting than insomnia. I spent the nights reading Greek until four in the morning, until my eyes burned and my head swam, until the only light burning in Monmouth House was my own. When I could no longer concentrate on Greek and the alphabet began to transmute itself into incoherent triangles and pitchforks, I read The Great Gatsby. It is one of my favourite books and I had taken it out of the library in hopes that it would cheer me up; of course, it only made me feel worse, since in my own humourless state I failed to see anything except what I construed as certain tragic similarities between Gatsby and myself.

This isn't exactly an glowing appraisal of Gatsby as a book for insomnia, as it "only [makes Richard] feel worse". However, I think it says a lot about the novels we choose when we cannot sleep. They are "favourites" that we turn to for comfort, and they often do provide this, depending on our place in life and our present feelings.

I certainly think there's something magical about The Great Gatsby, as in the following quote:

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

Magic tends to be a good thing at four in the morning when it's getting light outside.

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Thursday, 16 July 2015

Nick Cave's chosen "sad poem of loss": "The Widower in the Country" by Les Murray

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2012.
Image credit Sally May Mills. 

I was very saddened to hear the news of Nick Cave's son; the family facing a tragic accident not far from where I live in Sussex. It reminded me of the musician's selection for the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology (edited by Anthony and Ben Holden): "The Widower in the Country" by Les Murray.

Nick Cave writes how this "very sad poem of loss revolves mournfully" around the death of the farmer's wife, which remains unmentioned as we follow him through his "dire and ineffectual day's work".

I'll get up soon, and leave my bed unmade.
I'll go outside and split off kindling wood,
From the yellow-box log that lies beside the gate,
And the sun will be high, for I get up late now.

It's the unmade bed and the "I get up late now" that gives away so much. Cave sees the farmer as "that tough old Australian man, so familiar to me, just getting on with the business of life", but views "the violence of the last two lines, that screaming unconsciousness" as the part of the poem that "really brings on the waterworks":

Last night I thought I dreamt – but when I woke
The screaming was only a possum ski-ing down
The iron roof on little moonlit claws. 

It is hard to put words to sad situations like this, but poetry might get close. After all, poems can't always provide solace, but often we can find something close to what we're facing.

My favourite Nick Cave Album? The Lyre of Orpheus half of the Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus double album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I'm unsure how O'Children could be more beautiful.

You can read "The Widower in the Country" (1963) by Les Murray in full here and find other superb poetic selections in the Poems That Make Grown Men Cry anthology by Anthony and Ben Holden.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

How people (and hobbits) can "find strength they didn't know they had" with books and good company

The End of Your Life Book Club
Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club is one of my best-loved non-fiction books, rightly described by Edmund De Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, as "a true meditation on what books can do".

It is Will Schwalbe's account of the books that he shared with his mother in her final months of living with cancer, and about one third into the book, he relates how, upon returning home on one particularly bad day and unable to sleep, he searches for comfort in his childhood copy of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Schwalbe soon encounters the scene in which protagonist hobbit Bilbo and his dwarf companions find themselves lost and separated in a dark wood. Tolkien's wisdom at this point of the book could not be much more poignant:

That was one of his most miserable moments. But he soon made up his mind that it was no good trying to do anything till day came with some little light.

When sharing his experience of revisiting The Hobbit with his mother the following day, he tries to explain why Tolkien, his childhood favourite, still has a certain power over him:

"I think it's because it shows that people–or hobbits, as the case may be–can find strength they didn't know they had"

Tolkien, throughout The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and his wider work and writing, dispenses a trove of guidance for finding courage when all seems lost (or distant, at least). In The Return of the King, Arwen hands Frodo a diamond that was hanging around her neck and says:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

"When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you, this will bring you aid"

This reminds me that there is a way through difficult and memories, be it with the help of material objects or, say, the memory of happier times. Another wonderful quote is to be found in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf tells the protesting Frodo ("Why did [the ring] come to me? Why was I chosen?) that:

You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.

If you are in need of some extra courage, or a nudge in the direction of mental strength, you could try turning to Tolkien for an hour. Alternatively, perhaps jot down the quotations above for a day with more trials than today.

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