Tag Archives: Book review

Books that will change your life: “Cloud Atlas”

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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: “Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within”

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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.

Books that will change your life: “Finding your own North Star”

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Marta Beck is known as America’s no 1 life coach, yet she calls life coaching “a profession so cheesy it fairly screems to be covered in nuts (and some would argue it is)”. She’s one clever woman, who trained as a Chinese scholar and taught Sociology at Harvard before dedicating herself to coaching and writing bestselling books. I am reviewing this one first as it is the first one she wrote, but all of them are certainly worth a read.

The book

Finding your own North Star: How to reclaim the life you were meant to live first came out in 2001 and was reprinted over ten times since. It is a good start to get into Martha’s coaching techniques, as it is a straightforward, pleasant read with a number of easy to follow exercices. While her later books draw more on intuition, meditation and (what seems like) magic, North Star is essentially down to earth and easy to get into.

The big idea

All of us have an Essential Self, which we are born with and knows what we like and dislike (what we might consider our “true self”), and a Social Self, the part of us who helps us function in society by taking into account practicalities, rules, other people’s feelings. A healthy balance between both is necessary to a happy life.

The idea is that some people get so good at developing their Social Self while trying to please other people or to avoid conflict, that they have lost sight of the Essential Self completely. The book helps readers find out about both selves, how they affect their lives, and how to get back in touch with their Essential Selves to rebalance their lives and be happier.

What’s great about it

In my view what sets this book apart of many other self-help books with a similar message is that it’s actually a very pleasant read – as well as being a good writer Martha is quite funny. It’s also well documented, and written by someone who has obviously done therapy work with hundreds of clients before writing. So you not only benefit from all the real-life examples in the book, but get a sense that hers is advice that works. The exercises are easy to follow and very effective. The fact that Martha has been through similar problems herself makes it all the more credible.

Why it will change your life

You will find this book particularly helpful if you are in a situation where something is off – in your work or relationship or life in general – but you can’t quite pinpoint why. You might feel miserable everyday without a clear reason, or feel drained or trapped in a situation when you should be happy. The book will help you see that a/ you are not alone and b/ there is definitely a way out of it. The approach is that there is not anything “wrong” with you that needs to be fixed. The emphasis in on focusing on who you already are and allowing you to grow in a way that is true to you.

Martha’s compassionate advice, which she clearly gained from going through difficult times (anorexia and chronic illnesses, breaking free of a strict Mormon community, divorce, raising a child with Down’s syndrome) is very powerful, and her voice will stay with you long after you turn the last pages.

Books that will change your life: “The Artist’s Way”

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This book is very much a classic and chances are if you are interested in self-development and creativity, you’ll have come across it already. If you haven’t read it yet, it is definitely worth a look.

The book
Published over 20 years ago, Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way – A course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self is built like a 3 months course – 12 chapters to be read weekly complete with exercises. It is based an actual course the author used to run to help blocked artists get back in touch with their creativity.

The big idea
All of us are inherently creative, but for a number of reasons we might have become “blocked” and unable to make art. The book helps us identify and remove the barriers and fears that block our inspiration and creativity, so that they can start flowing again.

What’s great about it
Because the author has worked with so many “real life” students she will cover most of your issues and concerns, so that you feel very much guided and supported throughout the course. The great strength of the book is that it encourages you to apply its principles to your daily life through very simple, fun exercises. Do not be put off by the slightly “hippy dippy” approach – if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the process and do the exercises as indicated, you will be amazed by how quickly you progress.

Why it will change your life
This book is not only about art – it’s about daring to be yourself in all aspects of your life. The author’s gentle, holistic approach encourages you to take stock of where you are and where you want to go, and it helps you open your heart as a person so that you slowly but steadily begin not only to create art more freely, but also to start to feel happier in your own skin.

Books that will change your life: “Quiet”

P1050167 low resI first heard of this book via Susan Cain’s Ted talk, but for some reason didn’t come round to reading it until it was given to me. Good thing it was too – reading it has absolutely transformed the way I see myself and my potential in life,

The book
“Quiet – The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking”, by Susan Cain. Published in 2012, it quickly became an international bestseller; it received endless praise – the Telegraph even declared it “The most important book in a decade”.

The big idea
About half of the world’s population are introverts, yet most of society (at least Western society) is geared massively towards extroverts. This often leaves introverts to feel inadequate and lacking, when really they are often brilliant thinkers and creatives. More should be done to encourage them to develop in ways that suit them, as it would benefit society as a whole.

What’s great about it
While the idea seems simplistic (which is what put me off reading it initially), it is extremely well researched and documented. Each chapter is based on solid science and numerous interviews. Cain has clearly been researching the subject for years, and as a introvert herself is extremely passionate about it. She is a great advocate for quietness and of what is special and positive about it.

Why it will change your life
If you were a nerd growing up, and learnt to hide it the hard way; if you often have to pretend to be more gregarious than you are to prevent criticism; if you don’t understand why you feel so inadequate in many everyday situations, this book was written for you.
Beyong all the psychology and sociology and research, what you will learn is that you are just great the way you are. Although you may be criticized for being too calm, chances are you are a better thinker than average. You will learn to love and embrace your unique personality to improve your career, relationships, and life in general.