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Of Mice and Men (Penguin Classics)
Of Mice and Men (Penguin Classics)
by John Steinbeck
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.68

4.0 out of 5 stars Of Bleakness and Comfort, 30 Jun 2012
This is a great book: a dramatic, theatrical fable from the early American 20th century. Just as the title suggests it's crammed full of contrasts: between the characters, between their dreams and their reality, between the tranquillity and innocence of their surroundings and their coarse, fragile world. I enjoyed it immensely and picked it up at the perfect time, when I was hungry for something easy, engaging and full of the best treats that literature can offer. Although the characters are so foreign and difficult to emphasise with, there are universal concerns here. Loyalty. Powerlessness. Doing the right thing. Is it bleak or heart-warming? For me, it's both and that's a superb achievement for such a small book. Get it for your shelf and read it when you need to whet your appetite for more truly great fiction.


We: Introduction by Will Self
We: Introduction by Will Self
by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One flew over 1984, 19 Sep 2010
Some reviews of the Penguin version of "We" comment on the poor quality of the translation and the difficult writing style. With this 2007 translation by Natasha Randall I noticed no such problems. As she notes, the language of the original is very tightly designed: "his words syncopate - they rush and they brake". It seems likely that this translation has done justice to the challenge of communicating those same effects in English. I'm no great aesthete of the written word but some of the expressions stand-out and at times the prose is immensely enjoyable, witty and painfully effective.

The story is relatively uncomplicated, and the themes familiar from many plots that have followed. It is composed of the notes of a citizen (a cipher) in a future totalitarian "One State", who speaks back to us as the primitive people he is expecting his civilization to shortly encounter in space and assimilate into the unique mathematically perfected happiness that they nowadays take for granted. It is a world without questions, doubt, longing but as we see, through the records D-503 manages to make in his free hour, it is a world that shatters when unknowns, desire, jealously and heretical imagination creep in.

The plot will hold no surprises but is nonetheless gripping. At times, it has a light minimalistic touch of a diary that your leaves your imagination doing the work, at other times it turns into a minute-by-minute narrative. But this book is all about the conversation it aims to have with you. Would you opt for a happy, fair, collective, uncomplicated life? Is such a thing really possible, if it requires escape from and denial of individualistic, organic, unpredictable motivations such as love, imagination and the desire to be a parent? Overall, thought-provoking and highly readable stuff! Just the formula for a classic.


Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion
Awe: The Delights and Dangers of Our Eleventh Emotion
by Paul Pearsall
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.66

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Stunned by the magnificence of where we find ourselves", 8 Sep 2010
This book makes the argument that awe should be considered as a core, universally shared human emotion. This is significant for what we might realise about our character as humans and about the world in which we, naturally, find ourselves in awe. But the primary focus of this book is the impact of this emotional state on our individual lives. It argues that awe is something that can help us flourish in life, through both good and bad, by helping to broaden our sense of self, purpose and position in the world. It rallies against the positive-thinking regime of the self-help world: making the point that we are not "independent, separate, powerful beings who, if we will only think positively enough can have the life we desire". According to the author, the myth that we can and should be happier than we are is a pervasive and dangerous one, related to a state of "languishing". Instead, "life doesn't owe us anything more than itself, and awe is how we come to fully appreciate that fact". Thus put, awe is central to flourishing, the process of being vitally alive and growing, of thriving through the everyday and also when pain and difficulty arise. As a cancer sufferer and father to a disabled son, the author offers his own experience and insights here. As a clinical neuropsychologist, he offers some interesting perspectives on how emotions work and how the sense of self is reflected in the brain (and how it can get in the way of seeing what's out there). To supplement many of his own reflections, the author also draws on a collection of awe experiences from others.

In itself, this is not a five star book. In fact, I don't like the way it is structured. I don't like that it feels repetitive. I don't like that it passes opinion and personal reflection off as expertise and statement of fact. I don't like the argument that awe is a pure emotion - the eleventh of our core emotions. I don't like the confused semi-studious, semi-self-help shape of this book. I feel uneasy about the variety of ways awe, as a term, is used. The self-help element essentially prescribes mindfulness but doesn't really reflect on the relation of awe to this meditative state, or the many other authors that have dealt with this territory. And despite arguing how awe connects us with the world and each other, as a "between" rather than a "within" emotion, strangely fails to discuss what it is that evokes awe. It is seems oddly obsessed with the importance of the finger that points; what it points to is neglected.

Despite my dislikes, I found this a deeply challenging book. It is not a great book in a conventional sense: its strength, rather, is as testament to the author's experience of life and his delving into and splashing up deep, universal waters. Some of that cannot help but fall on the reader and make them think. It touches our very connection with life and death, and published in the year of the author's own death, it remains an intimately personal view of life. Those who see life as a deeply mysterious, sacred puzzle - beautiful yet obscured, painful yet joyful - and wish to unravel it just a little bit to get a better look, will probably find a few threads to pull at here. If you don't see life this way, this book will try to convince you that you should.


Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence
Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence
by John Francis
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.92

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not just a black man with a banjo, 30 July 2010
This is a book and a man worth listening to. John Francis is, in many ways, a romantic hero (after Wordsworth and Keats, not Mills and Boons). He started walking everywhere, stopped talking in order to avoid arguments, learnt to play a banjo, and painted on a daily basis because this felt like the right response, when he thought about it, to the world he found himself in. In itself this is inspiring. But it is doubly inspiring because of the humility that grew out of his choice to not speak: he moved instead to listening and learning. This comes across in the book where any sense of the judgemental is replaced by an accepting curiosity. Triply inspiring is John's walk across the US whilst, in stages, undertaking formal education, culminating in a PhD and a post in the US government advising on policy to prevent oil spills: the very experience of which in San Francisco was catalyst to his unfolding journey. This story of possibilities is a great one. It is a real-life metaphor for the related journey of a life and a society (hence, very Forrest Gump!). The unusual nature of his choices highlights just how deeply entrenched are their expected opposites. Not riding in cars and not talking are also related: the second helped John survive the first by avoiding heated exchanges with those who took offence to his walking.

I didn't think I'd enjoy this book, but I did. I thought it might be too earnest, too intentional, too knowing, too detailed, too dull. But it is none of these. It is a well-told, personable yet simple tale of events and choices. It is insightful and reflective but refrains from overplaying great internal dramas or delving into too much philosophy or rationalisation. It seems honest to how things just kind of happened. And in its straightforward manner charts the conversations and encounters that speak volumes about society: the fine received for walking along the highway, the man who ushered John into a lawyer's office after he had been run over, the paramedics who restrained him thinking he was mentally deficient for refusing their transport to hospital before he could communicate that it was against a principle, the series of policemen that stopped him to ask for a banjo recital and the government workers who were surprised that an environmentalist could be rational and, even more surprisingly, black. I was less inspired with the development of Planetwalk as an organisation with a mission (a bit too missionary perhaps, a bit too "expected"?). But as a tale of one man's life choices, his sense of discovery, and how others respond to him, it is a wholesomely rewarding and interesting read. As a case for the lost importance of walking as a way to be open to life, other people and place, it is a necessary read for anyone who can't imagine life without a car.


Beyond Civilisation: Humanity's Next Great Adventure
Beyond Civilisation: Humanity's Next Great Adventure
by Daniel Quinn
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.82

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Masterful metaphors, deep challenge, partial answer, 25 July 2010
This book is interesting, very well written and provides some superb insights into how we might have come to live in a regrettable tangle of social and environmental ills - a situation conveyed by Quinn's uniquely powerful metaphors. For example, do you what more out of life than "a chance to feed at the trough where the world is being devoured?" Unfortunately, despite many of the insights which challenged much of my own thinking, I found the argument to be muddled, built on several deeply shaky assumptions about history and evolution and misled by a yearning for some form of tribalism, on which the author attempts to build a way out of our nose-diving civilization. Whilst Quinn's proposed solution has many merits, it depends on a simulacrum of a tribe (focusing on equivalent benefits only, rather than its essential structure and function). Also, it feels as if his formula drastically falls short of the new vision that Quinn himself argues, in the early part of the book, is needed to fundamentally alter the course of civilization.

Much of the "problem" that Quinn describes and explains will be familiar to readers of Ishmael and The Story of B. The roots of the problems we see today are found in a flawed societal design that originated with the move to dependence on farming, as the only source of food. This caused the development of hierarchy, which Quinn effectively equates to civilization and a culture, which Quinn also effectively equates to today's global civilization (of which, questionably, there is only one as epitomised by the US): the "culture of maximum harm". Quinn seems to diagnose two problems: hierarchy and this culture in which all members are dedicated to attaining the high point of maximum affluence. Yet he fails to distinguish these factors and deals only with the former. To do this he pits tribal life, which has evolved (as the "gift of natural selection") to work equally well for all members, against civilization which is a hierarchical, socially complex organisation where the majority slog at "building pyramids" for the upper classes. Previous civilizations, he argues, failed and their members walked away from them but today we are impeded from doing so because of a set of "memes" or deeply rooted beliefs that tell us there is no alternative. The alternative beyond civilization that Quinn sees is in our economic organisation. Because he sees that our modern day pyramid-building is our work for corporations, he advocates that we don't do this, and instead move to occupational tribalism. Essentially, this means starting up businesses where you make a living together with others as equals. Something like a co-op.

Such a plan of action, if widely adopted, would be marvellous step forward (or, depending on your perspective, back to a history of co-ops and mutual societies). But as it strikes me, it is neither beyond civilization (merely beyond hierarchy) nor particularly tribal (merely co-operative). Throughout, his discussion conflates these concepts. To me, what he is really getting at is a necessary change in our culture. He writes "the New Tribal Revolution is an escape route from the prison of our culture. The walls of that prison are economic. That is, the need to make a living keeps us inside, because there's no way to make a living on the other side" (p173). I agree. The occupational tribalism Quinn proposes is no exception: it is only possible within civilization and, indeed, depends on one of the hall-marks of civilization - the division of labour. So I am left wishing that Quinn had focused his unique capacity for enquiry into how and why hierarchy has become associated with our modern cultural pursuit of maximal affluence, and base a solution on that rather than hierarchy per se. The more modest way of living that he associates with occupational tribalism is very much the sideline in this story. In my mind, it needs to be the headline. If "tribes" can help with that, all the better but right now I don't see a necessary connection. Quinn's interest in tribes, instead, appears to me as a red-herring. Hence, the answer outlined is an ill-fit to the question posed in this book.


Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
by Roger Deakin
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great company for a unique journey into wood, 17 July 2010
To join Roger Deakin as he explores wood and woodlands is something of a privilege. It is hard not to admire his encompassing knowledge, his curiosity and his gentle, enchanted approach to his subject. This book is a "disobedient book" in the best sense: it is hard to classify. Under Deakin's own terms, this is high praise, which he employs for one of his own favourite books. He has crafted, here, a journey in words, part diary, part travelogue, part meditation, part biography. It is a journey that follows tenuous threads of connection, knitting together fascinating facts about the history and use of certain types of wood, such as the cricket bat willow and the highly prized walnut burr, with his discovery of nature in the New Forest as a schoolboy, his explorations of woods and wood around the world, and meetings with the workers, artists and landowners who treasure woods just as highly as he does. I was particularly captivated by his account of the Beaulieu Tomes, a chronicle of natural history developed by successive generations of school boys as they camped in and charted the flora and fauna of the New Forest, inspiring the course of many of their lives. And I really treasured his journey to the walnut woods of Kyrgyzstan that evoked a joyous, simple woodlander living that has long since disappeared from our land (but maybe not our hearts!).

For some readers, this organic, unstructured approach may be a source of frustration. And for me, some chapters were less successful than others, but I found the company good, the language delicious and the personality that enthuses this book enough to carry my attention right through to the end and still wanting more. I would warn that this is not a conventional guide to trees - if you don't know your walnut tree from your ash, some of the loving detail that Deakin conveys might feel a little uprooted. And at times, I did feel left out by my ignorance of the names of plants and trees he rattles off. But I appreciate this is not the role of Wildwood. Instead it is an inspiration to go out and learn and a companion to come back to in the future and re-read. It is treasure trove of a book; an attic of a dear, departed uncle in which to rummage and gain a sense of his special character, his passions and his understanding. He has left us much to discover, relish and aspire to.


A Thousand Splendid Suns
A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, engaging but too simple?, 14 July 2010
A highly effective, well executed and immersive story. Khaled Hosseini has written yet another powerful, emotional page-turner that transports us, willingly, outside of the relatively safe and malleable comfort zone in which you and I (hopefully) live. In doing so, this is an important book. Consciously, Hosseini has directly prodded and aroused our empathy for the hapless, sub-human lives of Afghani women. As war continues in Afghanistan, this simple story may lead us to think further and to learn more about what is happening there and why. This is the power and the promise, here fulfilled, of literature.

But I found the empathy (and tears) the story did arouse in me was not straight-forward. Firstly, it was as if there was a slow cello playing in the background. A voodoo doll of my most accessible sentimentally was being artfully manipulated. There was nothing else for me to take away but my sympathy and rage and this was all done for me, wrapped up and presented to me like a Hollywood movie. As much I enjoyed being stuck to this book for a couple of days and being engaged in that process, I hope not to mistake this easy emotion for anything like a deep understanding. Secondly, I felt guilty. To be so oblivious to the real, complex tortures and suffering of other lives right now around the world, and yet cry my eyes out over simplified, imagined characters left me feeling a little disconnected, fraudulent, hypocritical. It's not like I'd never heard of Afghanistan before. But actually, I'm not sure if this is criticism or praise for the book.

My criticism is to say that this, for me, is not a classic. I think The Kite Runner is. A Thousand Splendid Suns lacks the dramatic structure for which every reader will remember The Kite Runner, and without that, and without much richness, subtlety, imagery or intrigue, I think this a story that closes with the book. But it is still one very much worth reading.


The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One
The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One
by Margaret Lobenstine
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.61

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perfect antidote to indefinite-career anxiety, 5 July 2010
This is a book that requires the right reader. For me, it was perfect and I am very glad I found it at the time I did. It has a very simple and effective message that has flicked a switch in my head: "It's ok to follow many interests in your life - you can really be successful doing this".

The book makes an effective case, which perhaps I am too eager to agree with, that: you're not a failure if you can't map out your whole life and if you change careers several times; and you don't have to be financially impoverished if you do; you don't have to decide upon one, ultimate purpose for your life; you can do more than one thing, and you can do all these things well.

That this seems to be a revelation is surprising, but nevertheless, something literally relaxed inside me (maybe life can be more fun than I thought?). The book goes on to offer familiar, but flexible, self-help tools and approaches to build a productive life that includes paid work. There is practical advice on making informed choices about what interests to focus on right now, and ways to stick with them until you consciously decide to change these focuses.

This book has changed the way I think about paid work. If you're struggling to choose a career it may help identify some of the problems you're experiencing, and just might help to get you unstuck.


Simplexity: The Simple Rules of a Complex World
Simplexity: The Simple Rules of a Complex World
by Jeffrey Kluger
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't be misled by a pretty cover and enticing title, 9 Jun 2010
To its advantage, this book is accessible and lively and has a certain interest appeal which kept me reading. But I very nearly put it down after the prologue, worried that it would continue as it started... and it did. At best, I can only describe this as a collection of interesting anecdotes - great for a dinner party but practically useless if your interest is to understand something about complexity and why it is an interesting field of study.

It is unfocused and does not carry any meaningful context from one chapter to the next. The inclusion of much of the content is tenuously justified: some chapters contain no more than a couple of sentences on complexity. Much is familiar from other popular science books where is it is much better covered. In short, it fails to live up to its own cover-story. I failed to notice where a "ground-breaking new concept" was discussed. Neither does it present a "startling reassessment of the building blocks of life and how they affect us all". What is more, where the content does seem unique and relevant, the author fails to offer any real depth or insight. So it ends up as a book about everything and nothing. It could go on forever but selects the stock market, art, emergency planning, the growth of cities, our faulty assessment of probability, the learning of language, technology, design and sport. Is it really surprising that such things are more complicated than they first appear? This feels like a vacuous dog wagged by a tail trying to cash in on popular science publishing successes, such as Malcolm Gladwell's books. It is unfortunately not equivalent.


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom for the short-distance reader, 12 May 2010
This is deeply personal exploration of the author's life, or at least the last 25 years in which he has been both a successful writer and runner. It weaves between accounts of running marathons, his need to run in his daily life and insights from his personal philosophy in the most wonderful way, shifting organically between writing and running, as if they were two sides of a coin. Indeed, he claims, the qualities he needs for writing are those he's learnt from running.

There are detailed descriptions of the physical trials he's voluntarily undertaken, and the narrative jumps around in a natural, contemplative "stream of life" way. It is written over a couple of years, as he looks backwards to understand the meaning of running in his life, and forwards as he comes to terms with ageing and decline of his abilities.

I found this an enjoyable, intriguing and thought-provoking little read. It is open, honest and full of self-accepting maturity and humble enquiry. It strikes right at the heart of how we organise our lives around what we value, or fail to. I've not had much chance, in my life, to speak to mature, insightful individuals who have been successful at what they pursued. So I found this immensely quenching for thirst I'm not sure I knew I had: wisdom on running a life.


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