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Books I finished reading in February

Stained Glass Colour

It’s not Chartres cathedral, which inspired Victoria Finlay, but the glass work in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is pretty impressive.

Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay

This is a history book, a science book, an artist’s aid and a travel log. It’s a magical book.

It was a gift from Tall Aunty, who was the first person I remember being jealous of for being able to draw better than me, and whom I made it my goal to draw like. Tall Aunty drew me little cartoon babies sitting I believe at our kitchen table when I was aged something so small that my colouring between the lines was worthy of remark.

If ever a book was written for me, then Colour is that book. It is a travelogue, a gathering of stories about one woman’s mission to discover the origins of traditional paints. There are nine chapters: black, white and the seven colours of the rainbow chosen by Isaac Newton. The Chinese rainbow has only five colours. That this book mentions Newton, as well as Roman emperors, Egyptian make-up and Mexican skirts should tell you a lot about the variation of stories it includes.

Victoria Finlay is an impressive character. There may be some hero worship going on here. Her hunt for Lapis Lazuli (in an Afghanistan mine to which none of the miners recalled any woman ever visiting, 2001) and Iranian saffron demonstrate a mind-set which is remarkably enlightened.

She has a book on Jewels. I don’t yet have a fascination with jewels, but I think I might develop one just to read more of her work.

Thank you Tall Aunty.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías

The Mathematical Genius leant me this book some time ago. Previously he’s leant me things like Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Bertrand Russell’s Power. These books I love, but they take some brain work to get through. They are what you might call intimidating. Russell’s language defies my dictionary and I have absolutely no idea what Kafka on the Shore was about, although I felt I enjoyed it.

Anyway, you can imagine how I felt whenever I looked up at the bookshelf and saw another of the Mathematical Genius’ books staring back at me. A bit like you feel in that moment before you go for a run. You know, once you’re out there, you’re going to enjoy it. Yet there seems so many reasons not to start.

True to type, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was not written for ease of reading. This didn’t mean it was difficult to read – it wasn’t – but that the author didn’t keep to short sentences and simple structures. The style of writing, whilst initially off-putting with its page long sentences, was, by the end of the first third, proving delightful. At times, the sentence structures were so riveting that I became distracted by them. I found myself envious of Marías’ confidence, and his playful attitude. He wrote like someone who loves language and its form. I was bewitched.

And then too, there was his mastery of theme. I never clicked as to the power of theme until reading this book. I tried to articulate back to the Mathematical Genius exactly how much I was enjoying how these reoccurring images and ideas were so beautifully woven into the protagonist’s thoughts. He gave me an understanding grin.

I shan’t spoil the story, except to say that to be in a house with someone else’s small child and the dead body of the married woman you were about to begin an affair with, is quite bad luck.

I’d have no hesitation about reading more by Javier Marías.

A Female Genius: How Ada Lovelace Lord Byron’s Daughter Started the Computer Age by James Essenger

Borrowed from the Father who taught me I could code before most people I knew could use a computer.

Ada Lovelace, in the mid-1800s, realised that machines would, one day, be able to write music.

This makes her remarkable. She possessed considerable mathematical talent (it was thought that she could think like a man). As she was a lady born of a good family (where good should be read titled), she had time on her hands. And in developing her mathematical talent she had the wonderful support of her mother who believed that for Ada’s sake, rationality and logic were desperate necessities and that serious study of mathematics and a restricted social schedule were the best ways of forcing these necessities upon her.

Ada’s mother feared that her Byron blood would bring Ada to ruin. Her father Lord Byron was a romantic poet, with a tendency to spend money he didn’t have and indulge in sexual practices that horrified his wife.

James Essinger certainly chose a fascinating life to cover. I’m certainly curious to read more about Ada, Babbage and the Analytical Machine, but not by James Essinger. Whilst the subject matter was great. The writing style was lacking.

But maybe I’m just getting pompous?

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Download for free from Project Gutenberg.

“A woman of seven and twenty,” said Marianne, after pausing a moment, “can never hope to feel or inspire affection again.”

No comment on the quote.

I tend to underestimate how much I am going to enjoy a Jane Austen book. I think this is partly because she is so well known, but also because of the number of film and TV adaptions I’ve seen which are enjoyable, but miss the depths of the books.

In my memory, characters such as Mrs Bennet and Mr Darcy, from Pride and Prejudice, feel sometimes almost as caricatures. Maybe it’s me who’s changed? It could be so because I’ve been reading the book as part of a course on Literature and Mental Health. Therefore, I haven’t just been reading, I’ve been contemplating the mental wellbeing of the characters as they fall and bruise throughout the story. I’ve been interested in more than just what happens next.

If you’re interested in my further thoughts on Sense and Sensibility I wrote a blog post on heartbreak in response to the Literature and Mental Health course.

A Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Download for free from Project Gutenberg.

The blurb on the back of my copy of A Heart of Darkness, describes the book as ‘a chilling tale of horror’. The narrator is a seaman called Marlow who goes to the Congo to work on a steamer in the period when colonisation was taking place with an inhumane madness fuelled by the desire for power and ivory. The story is semi-biographical, as it was written on Conrad’s return from the Congo.

Unlike Sense and Sensibility which was an intriguing read from the perspective of mental health, I’m not sure I’d dare go anywhere near A Heart of Darkness with such a curiosity. The power addicted, obsessed Kurtz who is the fascination of the story, is the sort of insane mentally ill that feels impossible to relate to. The idea that I could have any empathy with such a character disgusts me. And yet I’m reminded that I am only moral as much as my upbringing has taught me good morals, and if born into different circumstances, I might have been something else entirely.

This little glimmer though, of the odd Russian chap who Marlow meets on his journey amused me.

“If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it was this be-patched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.”

I love that line, the ‘pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure’.

 

Do you have any books you’d recommend I read next?

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Literature and Mental Health: Heartbreak

Heartbreak Moor

Long walks on heather strewn moors a literary cliché?

Heartbreak was the subject of week two in my Literature and Mental Health course. The reading reminded me of a TED talk I watched a little while back about the language of love.

The metaphor of a broken heart feels eternal and the course started by talking about people who have been together for a life-time and then one of them dies. Perhaps the metaphor if more apt than I’d supposed. It turns out that there is a medical condition, named after a Japanese octopus trap, which occurs after the sudden intense emotional stress of losing a loved one. It’s also known as broken heart syndrome and does in fact, temporarily in most cases, break one’s heart.

The misshapen heart looks like an octopus trap.

Heartbreak through the eyes of Jane Austen

In Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, a freshly heartbroken Marianne reads to fuel her misery:

In books too, as well as in music, she courted the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving. She read nothing but what they had been used to read together.

I can totally imagine it. The reliving of the memories again and again. The constant looking backwards instead of forwards. I keep my diaries out of reaching distance for they are as harmful as they are helpful.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the heroine Anne Elliot counsels long time heartbroken, wallowing Captain Benwick to read prose in addition to his much beloved melancholy poetry.

…he showed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry, and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly.

Apparently, there was a phase in English society between 1750-1798, where acting openly emotional was seen as the best way to live. Sense and Sensibility is set in the last decade of the 18th century but was published a little later in 1811. Marianne is in part a stereotype of this overly emotional, gushing, unrestrained character of the Age of Sensibility, whereas her sister, by contrast, is reserved and closed. Elinor is terrified of the effect that exhibiting how she feels will have on her family and social standing, but also, to me, she seems to feel that because her love was unofficial and in hindsight impossible, that it lacks the validation that Marianne’s open love affair has.

Of course, since this is Jane Austen, Elinor, Marianne, Anne and Benwick all end up happily married.

Heartbreak Moor

There are stone books scattered on my moor in homage to the Brontë sisters. I haven’t read any of their books.

Romantic novels

Unfortunately, there are too many bad novels out there – by which one means, novels that do not give us a correct map of love, that leave us unprepared to deal adequately with the difficulties of being in a couple. In moments of acute distress in relationships, our grief is too often complicated by a sense that things have become, for us alone, unusually and perversely difficult. Not only are we suffering, but it seems that our suffering has no equivalent in the lives of other more or less sane people.

Alain De Botton, (in this amusing article)

It’s this sense of being alone which Jack Lankester talks about in his interview within the course. The way, he says, that he eventually stopped feeling alone, was by reading the poetry of Philip Sidney who was writing about the same grief of being broken-hearted as Lankester was feeling.

I believe that poetry can snap you into a new perspective. My moment of realising I wasn’t alone, after a horrible break-up some years ago, came through the song Paint It Black, which was sung, beginning to end, by someone who seemed to see me completely.

Not-so-romantic novels

Romantic novels have never played a significant role on my bookshelf. Much less than several friends seem to believe. Some of the historical fiction I’ve read has romantic aspects, characters that are infatuated, but I think I prefer books where there’s more at stake than a break-up.

This doesn’t seem to have protected me from delusional fantasies of what love can achieve.

I don’t want to read about perfect love, because I can’t believe in it.

Instead, the failures of relationships so often depicted in novels seem more real. For some reason, I find myself thinking of An Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, in which the heroine becomes more and more aware of the sensation that her life with her fiancé is following an unswerving pattern of consumerism. A way of living which she’s quietly manipulated into by the expectations of society. Trapped in the status quo. And it’s a consumerism, which in her role in at an advertising agency, she herself reinforces.

Perhaps I’m just disenchanted.

 

Do you think romantic literature can give us harmful ideals?

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The books I finished reading in January

James Allen Kaleidoscope quote

What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey

Borrowed from The Mother.

I’ve learned from my experiences of getting sucked into other people’s ego dysfunction that their darkness robs you of your own light – the light you need to be yourself for others.

What I Know For Sure is a collection of short pieces written by Oprah Winfrey that are meant to guide you around the core components of living contently.

This was one of those books that I enjoyed tremendously, much more than I rationally thought I should. It gave me a beautiful sense of assuredness, a few techniques for thinking about my dysfunctions and niggles more productively, and an admiration for Winfrey.

One of the lines that really stuck was the suggestion to ask yourself: what am I afraid of?

Asking myself this question, and forcing myself to be specific about my answers, seems to be poison for fear. Each time I ask, I find it harder and harder to answer the question. The fears I have seem weak and silly. There are many things I don’t want to happen, but few that to think of instil a physical apprehension.

I guess I am blessed.

Think!: Before It’s Too Late by Edward De Bono

According to Edward De Bono, all our thinking is ‘excellent, but not enough’.

Clearly this chap is a genius. He tells you often. And it seems to make sense to me that rather that bumble along in our ignorant and repetitive manner we would benefit from fine tuning our thinking skills and broadening our thinking techniques. Society, after all, is ‘excellent, but not enough’.

And yet, I can’t stand his writing. If I had been reading this book – which I wasn’t, I was listening to it as an audiobook library loan – I would never have got to the end.

So, I’m at a tricky point. My options are ‘excellent, but not enough’. I really am intrigued about his ideas… which are used by so and so Noble prize winners, governments, geniuses etc. But at the same time, I really want a less ‘me, me, me’ book to access them from.

I have De Bono’s ‘A Beautiful Mind’ on my bookshelf. It’s borrowed from one parent or other, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years (I’m sure it tells me things are ‘excellent, but not enough’), yet I failed to get into it last time I tried. Now I’m intrigued by the content again, but I’m afraid of the anger the writing is inevitably going to induce.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housen

Borrowed from The Mother.

Each chapter of this book starts with a poem that the author believes illuminates a fundamental component of the experience of living. Now, I’m not exactly a person who’s experienced in poetry. It took me a bit of time to get into the flow of the dancing metaphors and imagery that made up Roger Housten’s style of writing. The first chapter was ok. The second chapter felt beguiling to me. And then at some point I suddenly began to feel like I was being carried through a story. Through a series of expressions that made me think of this book of poems as a step-sister of the self-help books I read last year.

My favourite of the poems was ‘Love after love’ by Derek Walcott.

The Brain Audit by Sean D’Souza

I’ve read a lot of stuff on marketing. After university, when I first went into digital marketing, I kept a list of marketing terms stuck to my desk because everything I read would involve all these terms that being a physics graduate I just didn’t know.

It was an intense self-education. I watched videos, listened to podcasts, downloaded reports and scoured through blog posts trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing. Marketing, I learnt, is a time suck.

Unsurprisingly, from my position in the middle of an open office, I found myself intrigued by a marketing podcast called the ‘three-month vacation’. What I really wanted to be doing was travelling, so it called to me in a way that other podcasts didn’t. Podcasts stuffed with irrelevant small talk and laden with advertising don’t interest me.

So I listened. And I took notes. Notes including how to research, how to name your products and how to pronounce ‘himalayas’: ‘Hi-MAH-li-ahs’. And eventually I bought myself the book.

Where I discovered that, like Dale Carnegie in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence people’, Sean  believes his book is so vital that he advises his readers to go through it a minimum of three times. I have. Which tells you a lot about the book and probably something about me too.

As A Man Thinketh by James Allen (1902)

Downloaded for free from the Gutenberg project.

“The world is your kaleidoscope, and the varying combinations of colours which at every succeeding moment it presents to you are the exquisitely adjusted pictures of your ever-moving thoughts.”

Whilst reading about marketing, I came across a link to a very small self-help book, written in 1902 by an English chap called James Allen.

The point that gets reiterated from the title to the close is that your thoughts make you who you are. You are what you think.

I began thinking, if indeed ‘man is the master of thought, the moulder of character, and the maker and shaper of condition, environment, and destiny’, then rigorously excluding negative feeling should be a doddle. I nod as I read, yes, ‘doubts and fears should be rigorously excluded.’

However…

How many of us believe ourselves to be the masters of our thoughts, or the moulders of our own character. A disciplined monk perhaps, but not me. I am very much an apprentice of thought and a mostly willing participant in the moulding of my own character. Like sitting at the pottery wheel, feeling the smooth wet clay shaping beneath the gentle pressure of my fingertips. Sometimes it feels effortless. I am in control. Then the clay flops, or slides out, my finger pokes through and mud splatters on the wall.

I Wrote This For You: Just The Words by Iain S. Thomas (a.k.a. pleasefindthis)

Borrowed from Midget.

Poetry. Although, not exactly what I would call poetry. Poetic writings perhaps, some poems, some musings. Some words to make you cold inside, inspire a glow to your cheeks, or remind you of that torturous feeling of loss.

Somehow hauntingly beautiful.

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (1938)

The Mother gave me this book, along with ‘A Room of One’s Own’ which I also remember enjoying.

Consider next time you drive along a country road the attitude of a rabbit caught in the glare of a head-lamp – its glazed eyes, its rigid paws. Is there not good reason to think without going outside our own country, that the ‘attitudes’, the false and unreal positions taken by the human form in England as well as in Germany, are due to the limelight which paralyses the free action of the human faculties and inhibits the human power to change and create new wholes as much as a strong head-lamp paralyses the little creatures who run out of the darkness into its beams?

Virginia Woolf’s voice is opinionated, argumentative, stubborn and yet elegant. She’s fierce, but don’t we need to be. Don’t things need to be said, different things maybe from 1938 (or perhaps not), but said all the same? And doesn’t someone articulate need to be building these arguments, creating a momentum, challenging beliefs?

rabbit in head lamp

Does fear paralyse you, or make you act falsely?

I feel my writing is cowardly. I have opinions, but I am the rabbit caught in the glare of the head-lamp. Not wishing to say the wrong thing, I add unnecessary words like ‘perhaps, ‘maybe’, ‘might’.  Yet I’m also scared of being imprecise.

I’m not sure I know how to begin constructing such a wondrous argument. Especially one that can be admired for its depth and wit. But I enjoyed hers.

 

What have you read this January?

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The other books I read in 2016 to restore sanity and try and help me be nice

 books 2016

Part Two Fiction

39.  The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

and

40.  An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

“Ah! The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women… merely adored.”

These two are both plays. I probably preferred ‘An Ideal Husband’ because the female characters had a bit more substance to them, but both plays made me giggle and were a gentle, light relief.

41.  Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

The third play I read was Pygmalion, which is better known perhaps as My Fair Lady. I particularly like My Fair Lady. I found the afterword ever so entertaining.

42.  Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

I needed fiction, and this was a short literary book that studied the lives of some less than lucky folk living on the Thames. It gave me what I needed, a glimpse into someone else’s life, a perspective on worries that were not my own. It won the Man Booker Prize in 1979, but whilst it was nice, I didn’t feel it moved me enough to be worthy of being considered great.

43.  The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I wrote an entire blog post on this one book, which touched me more than I expected.

44.  The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I remember reading White Fang when I was quite small, late at night at my grandparents’ house. I read a lot of books there, but White Fang stood out because it was more gory and violent than the others. In the first stories I wrote as a child, the characters were dogs, and I think Jack London was probably a great influence on this.

The Call of the Wild however felt like more than just a tale of a rather big dog being drawn by his instincts into the wilderness. It’s about a psychological battle. Fitting in, belonging, being responsible for those around you, versus being something that feels a little reckless. Or maybe, that’s just how I interpreted it.

45.  The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Disappointing.

46.  Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

“These lovers parleyed by the touch of hands;

True love is mute, and oft amazed stands.”

I enjoyed this more than I imagined.

47.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Ok. Perhaps it’s based on rumours, propaganda and creative scandalous claims. And perhaps it uses its licence as fiction to streamline a few characters into caricatures. But it’s an excellent book, a compelling read, and fascinating all the same. For a giggle read this excellent blog post on Caligula.

48.  Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García-Márquez

This is a murder mystery. It’s also a beautiful book. Elegantly sad; poetic but compelling.

49.  The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

and

50.  Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is still my favourite of the books by Barbara Kingsolver that I’ve read, but I enjoyed these two immensely. Flight Behaviour was more like the Prodigal Summer with ecological themes, it centred on monarch butterflies and a broken family. Whereas The Bean Trees was a much shorter read, and centred on ideas of home, belonging and motherhood.

51.  Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes by Terry Pratchett

There is too little Terry Pratchett on this list. I shall have to remedy this.

52.  Mortal Designs by Reem Bassiouney

In Cairo, there is a rather lovely little bookshop on a triangular square, a short walk from Tahrir Square where I decided to buy and read two books written by Egyptian women. This is the first of the two, and it centres around characters from across the social spectrum. It made a good read.

53.  Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

This book was hilarious and often had me laughing. In some ways, I’m reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

54.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Considered in another blog post. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is downloaded on my ebook reader.

55.  The Symposium by Plato

I hesitated before classifying this as fiction. It’s really philosophy, but the line between philosophy and story is rather blurred, and I read it as fiction that could instruct me through empathy rather than self-help with instruction through bullet point lists and sound bites. Plus, it’s funny.

“…let me recommend you to hold your breath, and if after you have done so for some time the hiccough is no better, then gargle with a little water; and if it still continues, tickle your nose with something and sneeze; and if you sneeze once or twice, even the most violent hiccough is soon to go.”

56.  The Lion and The Rose by Kate Quinn

Sometimes you need to be lost in a fantasy, another world, with fancy dresses, exotic perfumes and a giddy, excited compelling plot. Kate Quinn always delivers.

57.  The Wedding Officer: A Novel of Culinary Seduction by Anthony Capella

Like with The Lion and The Rose I wanted something light to read, and this book delivered. There were some scenes that were excellent. There were some that felt like they’d been put in afterwards to hang the whole thing. I would have started it later, finished it sooner, and accepted it as a shorter book.

That said, I’ve never read historical fiction set in Naples or in World War Two. And I’m glad I now have because it’s opened my mind up to a whole new set of questions to ask.

58.  Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien

This tiny book was recommended and leant to me by DeepThought. It generated deep thoughts.

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The books I read in 2016 to restore sanity and try and help me be nice

Part One Non-Fiction

1.      Utopian Dreams by Tobias Jones

There doesn’t seem to be an awareness that choice, like freedom, is only a means to an end, not the end itself.

This book was highly recommended to me by my atheist, mindfulness loving host in Sicily. It’s a book about communes in Italy and England. Since when I started travelling the Mother told me she feared that I’d shave my head and join a commune, I had to read the book.

The book challenges several notions about the importance of individuality that interest me. Whilst the idea of individuality is prized in modern society, I started to wonder how important it was relative to the comfort of being the same and belonging to something communal.

I’ve come to conclude an odd observation: when I’m surrounded by people who I expect to be very different to me, I’m more attuned to ways I’m the same. Oddly, this means, away from my familiar surroundings, I’m more aware of feelings of belonging. When I’m travelling, the people I’m staying with work hard to demonstrate that for this temporary moment, their home is my home. Whereas, at home, or with close friends where belonging is taken for granted, I’m acutely aware of the things that make me feel like I don’t belong.

2.      Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes

Grand-meré, who has Scottish roots, was reading this book whilst I was staying at the farm in France. Every now and again she’d delight me with another fact about my ancestry, so when she finished the book, I pounced on the opportunity to discover more.

3.      Quelques Philosophes by Jean-Jacques Sempé

Some very clever cartoons, in French.

4.      Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway

and

5.      A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The first book is a collection of excerpts from novels, memoirs and letters written by Hemingway about writing. The second is an account of his early years living in Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and developing a discipline around writing. I read A Moveable Feast because I enjoyed the extracts from it in Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Discipline is what I took away from the book. Not just about the practice of writing, but across life. If you want to achieve anything creative you must get on and do it. I’ve never read a Hemingway novel, but I imagine I will soon.

It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love to whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again.

6.      Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World by Benny Lewis

Read it. Mostly agreed with it. Ignored it.

7.      Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I started reading an older translation with rather archaic language, and then I switched to the Gregory Hays translation which is the one I would recommend. The book reminds me of a book of poetry my sister owns. It’s composed of lots of profound ideas that come illustrated with metaphors. Gregory Hays does a great job of making the language feel a little poetic.

To shrug it all off and wipe it clean – every annoyance and distraction – and reach utter stillness.

Child’s play.

I had one of those embarrassing moments reading this book. I was sitting out reading in the French sunshine. Grand-peré came over and asked what I was reading. It’s a bit awkward telling someone you’re reading Roman philosophy. They immediately want to know if it’s for your studies, and when I explain that I’m reading this serious toned ancient stuff for fun I’m embarrassed. Whilst Grand-peré knew the book, he knew the French version of the author’s name, so we had an extensive conversation where I was trying to be totally modest about reading and Grand-peré was trying to work out what it was I was reading. Then he made the connection and laughed at me.

8.      The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

and

9.      Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

These books are super easy to read. Some of the stories stick in my mind, many don’t. They’re what I would call the perfect book for an aeroplane or train journey. They need just enough thought to keep you engrained, but not so much that changing trains is an inconvenience.

10.  Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willett

This book made me sceptical of everything I’ve ever read or ever been told about diet. It’s to blame for my insistence on whole-wheat pasta.

11.  How We Learn: Throw out the rule book and unlock your brain’s potential by Benedict Carey

Wrote a blog post thinking about this one. I often read the book on the train between my Catalonian village and Barcelona.

12.  Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

This is a manifesto. It’s a plea for a sort of marketing that’s more inclusive and driven by the consumer. Short and aggravating rather than strategic.

13.  The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

I first thought that what I was learning was what love was – care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. But what I really gained was a different way of looking at the importance of having faith in those people you love.

To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment.

14.  Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert

I learnt that, disappointingly, you can’t plan happiness. We’ve not evolved that skill yet. We’re all rubbish at predicting what will make us happy. Our memory doesn’t include emotions like feeling of happiness – which is why for me keeping a diary is so important. When we remember something, or read a story, we recreate the emotions entirely from scratch.

Couples whose relationships have gone sour remember that they were never really happy in the first place.

And…

We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant experience, of an unpleasant situation that we can’t escape than one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance and commitment over freedom.

15.  The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu

We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable.

I also wrote a blog post about this one.

16.  Rising Strong by Brené Brown

Embracing the vulnerability it takes to rise up from a fall and grow a little stronger makes us a little dangerous.

If you haven’t watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk, then do. I don’t care if you’re too ‘hard’, don’t have emotions or think it’s silly. Drown your ego and watch it. And then watch it again and then keep watching it until you can recite it to your heart.

I own, and have read, both The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. This book, Rising Strong is a continuation on a theme, but it felt like a slightly different way of writing. It was nice, easy to read and the content useful, but I occasionally felt myself craving the more direct approach of Daring Greatly.

I regularly refer back to the bit that is on ‘the story I’m telling myself’.

17.  Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts by Thích Nhat Hanh

and

18.  The Art of Communicating by Thích Nhat Hanh

We think that because we find someone attractive, they have some kind of purity that is meaningful to us. But every person is made up of the pure and the impure, garbage as well as flowers.

It’s not often, but sometimes I start unhealthy thinking habits. Rather than laugh at my humanity, I feed the habit. It starts a spiral of negativity that I know if I keep feeding will only lead to one place: place of nothingness in which I am nothing.

Thích Nhất Hạnh writes short books. Beautiful, elegant, positive books which repeat again and again the thoughts I’m supposed to have engrained in my heart. They are forgiving books. Books which encourage space. And when I start biting at my own self-worth, they provide an anchor back to a gentle place.

19.  Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian R. Little

Creative lives can be chaotic.

I find myself difficult company. My standards can be impossibly high, both of myself and others. I’m intensely introspective. In fact, I’m intense. I’m not your typical ‘fun’ person to hang around with. I’m hard work and exhausting. Stay in my company for too long and you’ll probably end up crying. If an experience has failed to make a significant mark on me, I deem it as a failure. I’m useless company on the sofa watching TV and I struggle to have the patience to finish a jigsaw puzzle. My sense of humour is described as ‘different’ and when I’m travelling my hosts regularly tell me to ease up on the studying.

In contrast, at other times I’m eccentrically playful. I’ll make decisions that feel crazy. I’ll skip down moors and tease silly American young men about being to coward to clamber down mountainsides. If necessary, I can do a great impression of a dying dragon.

I probably have what the psychologists call low latent inhibition. My filters of what is important and what isn’t important are a bit skewed. Perhaps it’s why I have a box of pretty pictures cut out of magazines which I cherish dearly, but a distinct lack of steady income, plan of where to live next month and shoes.

There is an upside to having low latent inhibition, however: it opens the individual to a rich array of remotely connected thoughts and images that those with more effective filters would have screened out. This can be a fertile ground for creative insights, heightened sensitivity, and novel ways of seeing the world. On the downside the unfiltered mind risks becoming overwhelmed and the ability to cope compromised.

But back to the cheerful subject of vulnerability and expressing your grief, shame and ugliness:

They [Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues] have also shown that if you open up about the suppressed aspects of your life by writing or talking about them, something interesting happens to autonomic arousal. First, when opening up, the arousal level briefly increases – it isn’t easy to talk about that which you have been suppressing. But after opening up, arousal diminishes and not only goes back to the prior level of arousal but is actually lower than it was before the opening up. Those who open up are healthier, and this is in part due to enhanced immune system functioning.

20.  Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

This is the book that unmasks the magic of Pixar. It’s a book about mistakes and failures, repairing broken trust, being candid, vulnerable about emotions and letting go of the ego.

Which is, amusingly, what I was trying to avoid reading about. I told myself that I’d had enough wallowing in the re-education of my emotional mind and I needed to do something creative instead.

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth.

It’s an excellent book, with some excellent stories.

21.  The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate by Harriet Lerner

This was my first book into psychoanalysis. I’d read several self-help books with the wild aim of working out why I so often get lost in not-quite-belonging, not-quite-honest relationships and a not-quite-sure identity. I’d read some nice idealistic promises from a mindfulness perspective. I’d read Erich Fromm telling us to tough it up and love. And I wanted more.

Honestly, I was hugely sceptical. But I was desperate to read something where someone would give me enough of an idea that I could design a strategy for getting on with my life and putting quality into my relationships.

This book has ended up on my reread list. If you’ve read Brené Brown and are wanting more concrete examples of people screwing up being vulnerable, this is the book to remove the sweetness of Brené Brown’s work and add a bit of salt.

Speaking out and being ‘real’ are not necessarily virtues. Sometimes voicing our thoughts and feelings shuts down the lines of communication, diminishes or shames another person, or makes it less likely that two people can hear each other or even stay in the same room. Nor is talking always a solution. We know from personal experience that our best intentions to process a difficult issue can move a situation from bad to worse. We can also talk a particular subject to death, or focus on the negative in a way that draws us deeper into it, when we’d be better off distracting ourselves and going bowling.

22.  The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz

Like in The Dance of Connection, this book is composed of encounters with clients that the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz has had over his career. The encounters are frustrating, because in the clients you see yourself and the people you care about. You see that we are like we are for reasons more complicated than we might imagine, and that change doesn’t happen overnight, if at all.

I found the use of dreams interesting. Particularly how Grosz used the clients’ interpretations of their own dreams – not his own interpretations – as an external arena where ideas could be placed and tackled.

I was touched by the following passage:

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.

23.  Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

and

24.  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I like Elizabeth Gilbert because she is slightly screwed up, and people who are slightly screwed up aren’t so threatening as those with scary pretend smiles like waxworks. Committed was written before Eat, Pray, Love went crazy and it feels like her audience is simply herself. She’s trying to convince herself that her necessary marriage is a good idea for reasons other than a visa. It’s an interesting read, and discusses the history and cultural position of marriage in good detail. But the standout factor for me, in relation to couples making success of marriage was the need for humility.

Her book on creativity was in some spots too ‘spiritual’ for my tastes, but I enjoyed it all the same.

25.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

and

26.  How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

Although this point is not typically dwelt on in art-historical discussions or museum catalogues, the Mother of Christ can often be an unambiguous turn-on.

                I don’t want to fish tuna or label biscuits. This probably doesn’t surprise you. Almost a year on, I remember many sorrows of work, but I’m struggling to remember what pleasures Alain de Botton eluded to. His books are gentle reads that involve art, history, travel and, for me at least, some occasional spontaneous snorting. His books throw out ideas that challenge and entertain. But they do it in such a way that you imagine he irons his shirts with true dedication.

27.  The Wonderbox: Curious histories of how to live by Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric and Alain de Botton work together. This is obvious as soon as you start reading The Wonderbox. However, The Wonderbox does manage to get to many points quickly, and cover a range of topics including love, family, money and death. I was most fascinated by the chapter on death which pointed out the huge distance at which we keep death.

However, the quite that I scribbled down in my diary was from the section on creativity.

‘To blossom forth,’ said Picasso, ‘a work of art must ignore or rather forget all the rules.’ If we wish our lives to blossom, we should do the same, and transform creativity into a philosophy of personal independence, which shapes how we approach our work, our relationships, our beliefs and our ambitions

28.  The Life and Works of Picasso by Nathaniel Harris

During this year, I treated myself to visits to the Picasso museum in Malaga and the Picasso museum in Barcelona. I really like Picasso’s work. I can’t quite articulate why. Others with their audio guides wander past me while I remain lost in feelings conveyed to me by eyes that are simple, blunt, brush strokes. I don’t know why I have the reaction I do. I’m a visual person and put excessive importance on my emotions, so I’m definitely more susceptible than many others. But still I can’t explain.

The book was a way of constructing a timeline around Picasso’s different periods of art. I found it useful.

29.  Get Some Headspace: Ten Minutes to Calm Through Meditation by Andy Puddicombe

I endorse the Headspace app, and if you haven’t tried meditation, or want a way into meditation then the Take Ten (ten ten-minute meditations) series is worth trying. This book is much of the same content as the app but in a different format and with some added autobiographical stories which are entertaining.

30.  Sane New World: Taming The Mind by Ruby Wax

Whilst mindfulness is of course great – if you’re a monk/nun, practice regularly and have great disciple to not be swayed by small or large emotions – but it’s also highly frustrating. The thoughts that I’m best letting float by, as if on a gentle breeze, are those of ‘I should sit and meditate now’.

It can be frustrating reading books by people like Andy Puddlecombe and watching TED Talks by monks, because, whilst modelling success, they do give you a feeling of it being a really long journey.

Ruby Wax is great, because her mind seems completely wacky, her emotions or depressions seem incredibly bold, and she gives you a sense of journeying without shoes but making progress regardless.

31.  The Little Book of Clarity: A Quick Guide to Focus and Declutter Your Mind by Jamie Smart

There are some good ideas hidden behind this book, but it’s wordy, repetitive, uses too many vague metaphors and lacks any story. Strict Vipassana meditation temporarily declutters your mind. This book does not.

32.  The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World by John Francis

I used to look at houses as little boxes that we lived in waiting to die.

I learnt that my concept of silence is different to most. My silence isn’t an absence of noise, but what might be called noble silence, the silence of voice, body and mind. It’s a silence that prohibits reading and study. There is no writing. It’s the silence of deep meditation.

But there’s a silence that’s somewhere in between. A silence that is used as a tool to become a better listener and to avoid meaningless arguments, bickering and unkind words.

John Francis is a weird guy. An extreme person. Someone who isn’t ruled by the same incredible desire for validation and social acceptance as me. His perspective and thoughts make an interesting read.

He chose not to speak for 17 years, and he chose not to ride in a motorised vehicle. And he chose to make the world a better place.

33.  A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland

The book was lovely, although it did have a sedating effect on me. Being in the moment is great, but sometimes it’s useful to think about where the moment’s going to get you.

Anyway, Sara Maitland, who writes elegantly, concludes that there are really three types of silence. That dangerous silence which is forced upon you: school playground silent treatment, prisoners held in isolation and people with secrets that can’t be said through fear of shame.  Then there’s meditation and the quiet finding of space within one’s mind to reduce the ego. This is what most religious silences tend to be. And then there’s the necessary solitude and silence often required by an artist to create, which utilises the ego as a tool.

Silence shapes the silent. Which leads me to a question, what silence do I want in my life, and how do I hope for it to shape me?

34.  The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot

The originality of the work that each of us hope to achieve depends largely upon our retaining control of our own time.

I wanted this book to provide evidence that me taking an afternoon nap is a perfectly valid choice. However, this book wasn’t about sleeping. It was about time management, but it approached it’s subject from a variety of unusual perspectives, like descriptions of great paintings that depict a post lunch humanity: a lull in efforts, an increase in sexual arousal, and an appreciation for the moment.

35.  The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment by Isabel Losada

I like Isabel Losada. I’d genuinely like to have coffee with this woman. If anyone wants to get me another of her books they’re more than welcome.

She’s a scientist, although I don’t think she’d really go for that label. She takes things that may or may not help her deal better with her life, and where many of us would chicken out, she sacrifices her ego and goes for it.

Her experiments include staying in a convent, weekends away to find your inner goddess or some angels, tai chi, numerous massage therapies, and sessions to express your anger.

She’s also done a Vipassana meditation course – which I am of course impressed by because I know how hard that it.

36.  Walden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

You start reading, and a few pages in, you wonder if you’re ever going to see the end of this book. I read it, because it’s one of those books that are regularly referenced. It offered some interesting opinions on what factors you might want to consider when trying to identify how to live your life. It also went on a lot about things like how ants fight. Pages and pages on three ants fighting to the death. Thinking about the dying ants makes me feel quite uneasy.

37.  Shaking hands with death by Terry Pratchett

This tiny book is a speech that Terry Pratchett gave about his opinions on death and the right to die. It’s a good read, and thought provoking.

38.  Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Long but worth it. I also wrote a blog post about this one.

 

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Reading to learn what forgiveness feels like (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu)

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I’ve finally finished Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The selfish point of reading it was to discover how one develops the skills of forgiveness: how one goes from angry person to gentle compassionate soul, and what all of this really means.

And I’ve totally failed. I’m no longer even sure if forgiveness, as I originally understood it, is a thing. Mandela is so good at explaining why his opposition feel the way they do, even when they do something stupid that results in a tragedy. I suppose the word is wise. He was a wise man.

I’m not wise. I’m young, emotional and volatile. I take things personally and I don’t simply let go of my anger.

The dictionary gives me the definition that to forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake.

Personally, I want to add to ‘angry or resentful’ a third feeling: afraid.

My anger isn’t just that I’m annoyed by circumstances. It primarily comes from a terror that’s embedded deep inside me and which demonstrates its existence through defensive behaviour including being angry. (My friends have several eloquent ways of saying I can be a nightmare in more polite language.)

Anyway, as I understand it, dear Nelson may have been angry and resentful towards certain individuals, but he had a bigger understanding of the world. A bigger problem that he wanted to solve. And as much as he loved or hated individuals, they did not matter so much as making progress in the journey towards his goal: freedom.

In my deeply introspective regurgitation of ideas, this inevitably means I land right back where I started with selfishness. Mandela it seems could forgive, or at least deal with the horror and anger he must have felt, because he was striving forward. He had a purpose bigger than himself. He knew that his goal of freedom required him to have strong working relationships with people whose ideas and beliefs he was fundamentally opposed to. Freedom mattered more than ego.

So, I’m left with the conclusion that forgiveness can be achieved through a mixture of understanding, perspective, and the courage to push forward towards something greater.

Or if it’s not forgiveness, it’s at least something.

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

When I was travelling, and Long Walk to Freedom, was too heavy for my luggage, I read this book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter.

“Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.”

I like this definition because it suggests action rather than a simple absence of anger. It’s nice to think of forgiveness as the loss of anger. However, is this really feasible?  You can repress anger, or it can disappear. But then, when triggered, it can resurface or reappear. I can think I’ve developed empathy and understanding, and that I have this time forgiven, and then someone says something, or nothing, and I . I’m afraid and before long I’m closing the door with force than necessary.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Several of his stories are from this period.

“Behaviour that is hurtful, shameful, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury.”

Forgiveness is not a weakness. One person told another person that I’d forgive them, because I always do. And I got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they saw my acceptance and determination to continue to like people even when they hurt me as a weakness. I don’t believe it is. Forgiveness is not the weak scrubbing out one’s self-worth as to accept without reservation another’s story. Forgiveness is a gallant act. It’s empathising with those who have caused you pain, learning to understand why they hurt you, and taking this understanding as a tool for walking out of anger.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.

Nor is it pretending that hurt has not happened.

Forgiveness is not quick or easy. It takes a lot of effort and time to develop that empathy and understanding of a person who has caused you pain, shame and the subsequent fear and anger that come from feeling hurt.

The fourfold path

This route to forgiveness advocated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu isn’t a case of a strategy you can walk through once. Sometimes you must keep going back to the beginning and starting again. Some days you wake up still feeling an old pain that you imagined had left and must start again from the beginning.

  • Tell the story
  • Name the hurt
  • Grant forgiveness
  • Renew or release the relationship

I’m learning. And learning. Further book recommendations or ideas are always welcome.

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