Category Archives: Books

Book reviews

Books that will change you life: “Transitions – making sense of life’s changes”

P1060357 low res (1)

 

 

“People change and they forget to tell each other” – Lillian Hellman

 

 

The book

I can’t remember how or why I came across it in the first place, and I don’t know much about the author, but I’ve personally found it very helpful in the last few weeks as I’m going through rather a lot of change at the moment.

“Transitions” is not specifically about careers, more about all the big changes that make an impact on our lives. It was first published in 1980 and it has since been revised several times… so one can only assume it’s helped a number of people since.

Have you already had periods in your life when you’re no longer the “old you” and whatever you enjoyed previously (your old friends, your job, your city, whatever) suddenly no longer satisfies you? Or times when you felt empty or depressed for “no reason”? That’s the signs of transition, baby.

The big idea

According to the author, since Western society has evolved over the centuries to be primarily focused on productivity/ efficiency, we’ve had a tendency to view humans as “mechanical”. People are seen to evolve like on a production line: they are born, grow to their adult size while being equipped via education, and at the age of 21 they are fully-formed adults who do not change until the end of their lives… except for the fact they get old.

Yet we all know from experience that it’s not really true – I personally don’t feel like the same person I was 15 years ago, do you? Not only do our external circumstances change but we also evolve with regard to our identities, who we think we are, and what we want for ourselves.

Understanding the psychological transition that goes on around major external changes can help us figure out why we sometimes react in inexplicable ways… especially when we find ourselves getting depressed “for no reason”, or following a positive external change like a big promotion at work or the birth of a child.

“Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.”

Ending before beginning

In ancient societies, people didn’t have smart phones but they were more in touch with their internal lives than we are, and they had rites of passage to help individuals go through major life changes.

Whatever form they took, those rites usually involved a “dramatic ending” to the old familiar situation, followed by time spent in a “neutral zone”, and finally a “new beginning” when the person returns with a new identity. (You might have heard of such rituals in tribes when boys were sent to spend time on their own in the wilderness, as a symbolic rite of passage in order to become men? If not they’re copiously described in the book, alongside ancient Greeks myths and the life of Jesus and other spiritual figures).

Crucially, the “new beginning” comes right at the end of the process; it won’t happen until the person has A/ fully accepted that he/she can never go back to the old situation (which may cause considerable grief) and B/ spent the appropriate time in the neutral zone doing some soul-searching.

Why it will change your life

We’ve all heard about the mid-life crisis (and the red sports car clichés), but it’s not true that all of us will go on a major identity crisis at 40 – rather, our identities evolve constantly in our own time, and we may well go through several such transitions depending on our circumstances.

Each of us will be faced with several periods of “floating” and readjustment which may be extremely painful, especially if we have no clue what is going on… so understanding the process can help us navigate it more easily and gracefully.

 

Books that will change your life: “Cloud Atlas”

P1060341 low res

 

 

I originally picked “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell as a fun holiday read, but was soon gripped to it like I hadn’t been in a long time, so I though I’d share it with you:

 

The book

“Cloud Atlas” came out in the UK in 2004 to great acclaim; it was translated worldwide and turned into a gigantic-budget film epic by the people behind “Matrix”.

(The film flopped at the box office, which is a shame, but also not surprising because the book is so ambitious in scope and depth that attempting to capture it in two hours was a bit bonkers. Still, full points for trying!)

This intriguingly-named novel defies categories and is rather hard to describe. It tells the stories of six different characters living across the world in six different periods of time – 19th century South Pacific, 1930s Belgium, 1980s California, modern-day England, 2100s “Neo-Seoul” and 2300s post-apocalyptic Hawaii.

But don’t be fooled by the word “post-apocalyptic”, it’s not science-fi; and although it can be read easily without looking for deeper meaning (unless you’re like me, in which case this never happens), it is also a fable about the human condition.

The big idea

The six stories are almost self-contained, with only a tenuous link between them as one element of each story will be found again in the next. For example the journal of the South Pacific traveller will be found in a library in Belgium; a piece of music composed in Belgium will be heard again in California; a film made in present-time England will find its way to Neo-Seoul, etc.

But these links aren’t so central to our understanding: the real genius of the book is that each story is really powerful in itself, and by putting in parallel so many of them, it hints at the similarities between the people rather then what separates them.

The six characters all live in wildly different circumstances (a pensioner in a care home, a journalist investigating a nuclear plant, a clone on the run from the police…), yet they are all ordinary people trying to live their lives in challenging circumstances. As they face the difficulties, big or small, of their daily lives, they all have similar hopes and fears, loves and doubts, and the will to make sense of their lives and do the right thing.

At some crucial point in each story, the characters have to make a choice between following blindly what society dictates to them, or risking everything to break free of rules and be themselves: escaping slavery, helping others at the risk of their lives, etc

So the book is also a tale of courage and resilience, because following what they know to be right will test all the characters to their limits.

Why it will change you life

The most amazing thing about this book is how imaginative it is – its gripping narrative across six different “worlds” that all feel incredibly real. So if you just wanted a good holiday read, you could do worse: it’s hugely entertaining.

Yet readers will probably remember it for its deeper meaning too, the questions it brings about humanity and society – what links us beyond time and place, what makes us human.

It’s not all a warm fuzzy – the similarities between those people and their situations make it obvious that neither people nor circumstances evolve much over the course of History.

Patterns and mistakes are repeated – aren’t the “savages” of the 17th century colonies much the same people as the 23rd century “survivors” after the fall of our civilisation? Isn’t modernity perpetuating the same old cruelty under different guises – the compassion-less treatment of the old age pensioner echoing that of the slaves, and the human clones?

The author certainly doesn’t shy away from showing us what is nasty about humanity – greed, deception, cruelty, corruption, the pursuit of one’s own selfish interest.

This roller coaster ride of a book forces us to look at our own circumstances in the light of the characters’, and wonder for ourselves: where we are on this continuum?

But beyond the dark side, what I chose to get out of it is that although greed and cruelty may be omnipresent, there is always an option to do what we believe is right, even when it is not easy.

Each and everyone of us may be insignificant on the scale of History, yet the choices we make everyday – between crime and kindness, acceptance or fighting back, have the power to influence our collective future.

Our lives are shaped by events that begin long before we are born and will continue long after our death. Yet everything is connected – the future, past and present; the universal and the intimate.

As I said, a pretty gripping read…

 

Books that will change your life: “This Will Never Happen Again”, by David Cain

TWNHA_low res
To say this e-book is by a “fellow blogger” would be a massive overstatement – the author, Canadian-engineer-turned-full time writer David Cain, has tens of thousands of followers on his blog Raptitude, and on the Thought Catalog website. He’s a bit of a legend in the blogosphere and definitely a hero of mine…

The book

“This will never happen again” is a collection of previously published posts (so you could read them online, although I think the book versions have been slightly edited).

The Raptitude blog takes “a street-level look at the human experience” – it’s about how to become a better human. The book focuses on something more precise in the human experience: the mindfulness of everyday life; how we can learn to not take things for granted, and make sure we appreciate the magic in every single moment.

The big idea

Life is as it says in the title: this will never happen again. Today, this very moment, the special set of circumstances that are happening right now, have happened and will never be repeated. Even if you are in the same spot doing the same thing with the same people tomorrow, it will not be the exact same. External elements may be different; you may be in a different mood; you will have learnt something from the previous day. You will never be as young as you are today.

In our everyday lives we take far too much for granted. We may know we are lucky to have a good job, friends, family, but do we feel it? How often do we complain about petty things instead of appreciating all that we have? How often do we pause to feel the wonder of life itself – of waking up everyday, of having a roof over our heads or other basic things we couldn’t live without,

We owe it to yourselves to be fully conscious of this to enjoy a truly special “human experience”.

Why it will change your life

The great thing about this book is that it doesn’t lecture you – it’s written in a simple, down-to-earth style, and the author comes up with small techniques you can use to find blissful experiences in small, mundane things.

For example, how you can use boring downtimes such as walking from your car to the supermarket to awaken a sense of wonder. Or how to practice gratitude by imagining that tomorrow you will wake up without anything – you will open your eyes in the morning to find that you are in a forest, naked and alone. Or how you can “die on purpose” by imagining your surroundings – the room you sit in, the people in it – as they would be if you weren’t there.

And so it the book manages to capture the uncapturable – the tiny moments of bliss that add up to a deeply happy existence.

Reading it left me with a true sense of magic and a distinct feeling that I was walking on clouds… so it comes highly recommended.

If you would like a taste of it first, here are a couple of really amazing chapters:

How to walk across a parking lot

A day in the future

Enjoy!

Books that will change your life: “Wild – A journey from lost to found”

P1060342 low res
“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed in an international bestseller, and currently being turned into a Hollywood film with Reese Witherspoon. Don’t let this put you off – the book is a moving, intelligent piece of life writing. If you liked Liz Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray Love”, there’s a good change you will like “Wild” too.

 

The book

Cheryl Strayed’s life fell apart completely in her mid-twenties, after her mother died suddenly from cancer. Relationships with the rest of her family became difficult, she grew apart from her husband and fell into a downward spiral of grief, depression and heroin abuse.

She was eventually saved by a single, seemingly crazy project to hike on her own on the Pacific Crest Trail, a mountain trail that runs all the way from the Mexican border to Canada – a project which she undertook, against everybody’s advice, without any planning or previous hiking experience. Her 1,100 mile journey into the American wilderness is the story of the book.

The big idea

As you might have guessed, this book is as much about an interior journey “from lost to found” (as per the subtitle), as it is about hiking. It does tell you all about the hike and the people she meets along the way, but the main idea of the book is really that sometimes, you have to let yourself fall apart completely before you can rebuild yourself again; or as some people say, you have to reach rock bottom before you can push yourself back up.

Those of us who have experienced this will know it takes tremendous faith and courage to do so, and Cheryl’s book is inspiring precisely for that reason – because as her beautiful story unravels, we are not only in awe of her courage, but also touched by the resonances with our own personal lives.

Why it will change your life

This memoir goes back and forth between stories from the wild and memories from the author’s past, and although Strayed (Strayed being the name she picked for herself after her divorce) goes through difficult times, it isn’t a dark book. Anecdotes from the trail are often hilarious, and her memories of her past and her family are of good times as well as bad. Importantly, the story was written a good 15 years after the actual hike, and she has since remarried, had children, and led a generally happy life, so it comes from a place of maturity and compassion.

It is ultimately a book about family and love and growing up and how, if we are ready to be brave and forgive ourselves, loss can lead us to become the person we were meant to be.

 

Books that will change you life: “Eat, Pray, Love”

P1050616 low res

I wasn’t sure about writing on Eat, Pray, Love, seeing that the entire world has already read it – or so it seems – or so they should, because it’s so awsomely good that they made a film adaptation with Julia Roberts. But I recently met a few friends who hadn’t read it yet, so here goes and I hope to convince you to pick up a copy.

 

The book

This is the memoir of American 30-something author Liz Gilbert, as she takes a year off to travel to Italy, India and Bali to reconnect with herself following a nasty divorce and disastrous rebound relationship. Hence the title – hers is a story of eating delicious foods of Italy, praying and meditating in an Ashram in India, and finally enjoying a balanced life and finding love in Bali. All the while discovering new cultures, making awsome friends and going on mini-adventures.

The big idea

The reason I love this book is that it is a honest, hide-nothing account of a woman falling apart, experiencing depression, loneliness and despair, and finally coming through to the other side through spiritual seeking and a good dose of courage.

As well as being authentic, it is also tremedously funny and very clever. It is not only about introspection, but also about beautiful people and gorgeous places – it takes you from the best pizza restaurant in the back streets of Naples to stunning Indonesian beaches – all embraced with great enthusiasm and curiosity. The friends she makes along the way are wonderful and it altogether makes for a really fun, refreshing read.

Why it will change your life

Wherever you’re at in your life (and well, most especially if you are female), you will be touched by at least some of this story. Those 12 months in the company of Liz will make you want to follow in her footsteps and live life to the full. You will find (or reawaken) an urge to travel, to find God, to cherish your friends old and new, to explore and to grow.

You will be reminded of how the simplest things can make you tremendously happy, if you know to appreciate them. 

I can pretty much guarantee you will love yourself and the world more. And you will feel as though you have made a new best friend, in the person the amazing Liz.

I, for one, have read it twice. Are you convinced yet? Let me know what you think.

 

READ ON View my booshelf

Books that will change your life: “Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within”

P1050454 low res

 

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg is one book I can honestly credit for helping me start this blog.

Packed with advice for new writers, it inspired me to write from the heart, and its simple but powerful lessons are still with me today.

The book

The book is a collection of very short essays on writing, which the author wrote during her years of teaching creative writing to children and adults of all sorts of backgrounds. It is pleasantly informal and non-theoretical – each chapter is illustrated by stories from her own lifeor students she’s come across.

Subjects range from how to chose a good pen and paper, to how to write something new every day, or look at things differently to find inspiration everywhere. Chapters have charming titles like “Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger” or “A large field to wander in”. The tone is poetic, intimate and often funny, so that you end up learning a great deal without even trying.

The big idea

What makes the difference between this book and many others on writing, is that the author is a dedicated student of zen. She approaches writing like a meditation, and as well as telling you what or how to write, her focus is very much on your state of mind as you are writing.

Like Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Wayshe encourages you to free-write every day as a practice, writing whatever comes to your head without stopping to re-read or correct anything, to help you find your flow. This teaches you to write before you have any chance to think, and it is a powerful method to help you distinguish between what comes from your head and what comes from your heart. It teaches you to “watch the thinker” within you and realise when you say something meaningful, and when you are just waffling on.

Why it will change your life 

One of the challenges we face as new writers is finding our own voice – overthinking and self-criticizing are common pitfalls, and as a beginner you are likely to get discouraged when you see how far you have to go to get as good as your favourite writer. Many of us might also worry that what we want to say is not what we should be saying. We edit as we go, and as a result what we see on the page is often a watered-down version of what we meant to write.

By learning to write down the “bones” – the strong ideas that come from your heart and will remain the solid foundations for your stories (even when you do go to editing stage) you become more creative and more free. You become able to say what you really want to say deep down. This makes you a happier person, but also it makes your writing much more powerful and convincing.

This book is worth a read not only if you want to improve your writing, but also if you are curious to explore your creativity, as well as excellent meditation methods that don’t involve sitting still on a cushion until your bum hurts.

F**k it therapy

P1050362 low resIn almost everything in life, I tend to think simple is best. Think of the amazing food combinations involving two ingredients only: bread+butter, pasta+olive oil, tomato+basil, wine+cheese, prawn+mayonnaise, and I am sure you could add plenty to the list. (In fact if you can, please do share with me in the comments so I can have a try. I am not greedy, I’m food-curious).

Anyway, I’ve recently come across the excellent “F**k It” book by John C Parkin, which reminded me of this awsome “simple is best” theory. The idea behind the book is both deceptively simple and supremely powerful. So powerful in fact, that it’s already begun to change my life before I’ve even read it. I only heard the author present it in a talk at the Hay House Summit the day before yesterday, and I’m already a convert.

The F**k it philosophy is not about being rude (although that’s fun too!), it’s about realising that sometimes we worry too much about trivial stuff, and that we do have the power to stop it. From minor annoyances to bigger decisions, stress and overthinking can affect our lives in major ways, and especially for those of us prone to analysis paralysis (you know who you are), it’s all too easy wasting precious time fretting what if this or that and losing our wellbeing over it. We get scared, we get grumpy, we get stuck, we lose sleep. Even for people who don’t consider themselves particularly neurotic, the pace of our modern lives means there is usually room for some degree of relaxation.

All you need to do to apply the f**k it philosophy is this: whenever you catch yourself worrying out of proportion about anything, just say “Fuck it” and move on. Just this. You can start small, and you can start now. I started yesterday by paying attention to some of the basic overthinking that goes on in my average working day (because such an exciting life I lead):

I should really hurry, I will be 5 min late for this meeting, people will think I’m unreliable >> Fuck it, I’ll take my time, no one will even notice 5 minutes delay

Shouldn’t I try to wear something smarter to the office, I look like I’m dressed to go to the beach and I look stupid >> Fuck it, it’s the sunniest day of the year and I’ll bloody well wear gold sandals if I like it

I really fancy going home on time but all my colleagues are putting in several hours overtime everyday >> Fuck it, it’s their choice and I’ll work better tomorrow if I’ve had a rest

And so just like that, I was able to reclaim little bits of happiness which would otherwise have escaped me had I not said “fuck it”. Such is the power of it.

This simple technique cuts short the overthinking and invites us to action. It allows us to let go and move on. It boosts our self confidence. It reminds us that it’s okay to do what we like, once in a while.

It is not about being selfish, or becoming mean to people, or ignoring the important things in our lives. It’s about freeing more time and energy to focus on what truly matters, by not wasting it on things that don’t.

It’s about silencing the voices in our head that like to criticise everything you do. It’s about knowing that you do enough, you are enough. 

Like I said, it’s powerful stuff. So is anything bugging you right now? Say “fuck it” and begin to taste freedom.