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Mal Smith (London, UK)

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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
by Oliver Burkeman
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Promises more than it delivers, 13 Aug. 2014
What springs to mind on encountering the title "The Antidote"? I think of being bitten by a snake, taking "The Antidote" and, voilà, in minutes, I'm cured. So one expects Burkeman to give us an antidote to unhappiness, something we'll read and, voilà, we'll be happy. But Burkeman doesn't provide this.

Before taking an antidote we need to be certain that it will work, and full instructions on how to use it. Burkeman provides no evidence that his antidote will work, and no clear instructions on how to use it. Of course, demanding an antidote for unhappiness is a lot to ask for, and it's hardly surprising that Burkeman hasn't delivered. A more accurate title for this book would be, "A few things that made me slightly happier".

Burkeman points out the flaws in the "positive thinking" movement, but it's nothing that hasn't been done many times before. The chapters on stoicism and Buddhism I also found "old hat", but newcomers might find them an interesting overview. He didn't convince me that these ancient techniques are a sure antidote, and he doesn't provide instruction manuals for applying them.

I hadn't explored the literature on "Goal-less living", and was slightly disappointed when Burkeman reduced this to "Live with a few lightly-held goals". Again, no sure antidote, and certainly no instruction manual!

Burkeman's chapter on living with insecurity was interesting, but was basically a rehash of Alan Watts' sixty year old work, "The Wisdom of Insecurity". Again, no sure antidote, no clear instructions.

Full marks to Burkeman's honest account of what he took from his long excursion through various upmarket self help techniques. This includes a 'Stoic Pause' every few days, and 5 or 10 minutes daily Buddhist meditation. Although he isn't clear (!), you get the impression that his day-to-day life might be a bit happier. I actually use these techniques myself, in the same small quantities as Burkeman, and think they do lead to a (slightly) happier life. Maybe if I did more meditation & Stoic exercises I'd be even happier, but as with Burkeman, the spirit is not-that-willing, and the flesh is weak.

Burkeman finishes with Keat's wonderful invention of the idea of Negative Capability, the psychological state where, "a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..." This is a clever move, as I can't imagine anyone being anything but uncertain and doubtful after reading his book! So Burkeman produces an antidote for reducing the reader's irritation with his book - but it isn't a comprehensive antidote, and I'm still left irritated with the author (especially for that title!)

All in all, it was an entertaining read, with some good quotes, and pointers to more interesting literature. Three stars for being a good piece of journalism, if nothing more.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 6, 2015 11:46 PM GMT


Butcher's Crossing (Vintage Classics)
Butcher's Crossing (Vintage Classics)
by John Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Master of prose and situation, 3 Aug. 2014
This, on the surface, seems a fairly conventional story of the Wild West. But it's so well told, and the situations handled with such consummate grace and insight, that it becomes a great work of literature. In Stoner, Williams gave us the perfect "academic novel", here he gives us the perfect "cowboy story". I was entranced while reading this, from start to finish, and can't think of anything to criticise about it.


Things Fall Apart (Penguin Red Classics)
Things Fall Apart (Penguin Red Classics)
by Chinua Achebe
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Religion poisons everything, 7 Feb. 2014
As there are already enough five star reviews giving general praise to this superb novel, I thought I'd consider one aspect of the book, the religious. The culture that Achebe introduces us to is, by and large, a very positive one. The storytelling, music, and justice system is of a very high order. But the thing that spoils it is the religion. The African people we are introduced to know what justice is, and are themselves bemused when their religion forces them to believe, for instance, that twins are evil, and should be disposed of in a part of the forest (supposedly) inhabited by evil spirits. The thinkers in the tribe also wonder why many people are outcast for no good reason, but only because they have supposedly upset a spirit. This hideous religion is easily displaced by Christianity, as it slowly converts people, because, on the surface, it is not so obviously wrong (e.g., outcasts & twins & parent of twins are easy converts...) Of course, Christianity has always had its muscular and intolerant side, which is quickly revealed in this novel. The Christian God is a jealous God and as soon as it gains any significant power the missionaries, combined with the imperailists, are quite willing to kill any supporters of the old gods, for no good reason. So things do indeed fall apart in the struggle between the old religion and the new. As the late great Christoper Hitchens once said, "Religion poisons everything".


Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
Stoner: A Novel (Vintage Classics)
by John Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful story of inner success, 3 Feb. 2014
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Great story of a dirt farmer's son who find meaning in life through his literary pursuits. His external life goes wrong in many ways, he makes an enemy of his boss and doesn't get promotion, he makes a really bad marriage, etc. But the novel shows how you can get over a failed life, as judged by society's standards, if you have a true calling and avidly pursue it. In such a case, externals matter not a jot, the inner life is all.


Women in Love (Vintage Classics)
Women in Love (Vintage Classics)
by D H Lawrence
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tedious ramblings, 3 Feb. 2014
Having read this in my youth, when Lawrence was more appreciated than he is now, and not really getting what the fuss was about, I thought I'd give it another go. I remember finding it very difficult to understand Birkin's position, so did some reading up before hand to try and get me over the intellectual hurdles, including F.R. Leavis' book on Lawrence. Now I realise that I didn't get over the intellectual hurdles because Lawrence (and Leavis!) didn't either. The Lawrence figure in the novel, Birkin, always seems on the verge of saying something important, but he continually lapses into incoherent, extreme, or unattractive attitudes. For instance, he continually pours scorn on working class people, but at least they don't end up as a parasite like him.

Birkin is a school inspector and, in one of the better chapters, he shows that he's a good one, by explaining to Ursula, a school mistress, how to make her Botany lesson better by improving the kid's drawings in a way that increases the artistic and scientific impact. But he throws up this job to live on his private income, and drags Ursula away for some tedious ramblings on the continent. Note that Birkin doesn't actually do anything creative, he isn't an artist or a writer. As the other characters repeatedly point out, his views on large-scale intellectual & social issues are ridiculous and incoherent, so how could he be a writer? Only if he put his incoherent and useless ramblings in a novel and called it art. Birkin is a reserved character, so he sensibly avoids doing that, unfortunately Lawrence did not!

Birkin's friend, Gerald Crouch, is a mining magnate, and Lawrence tries to show that Gerald's life is meaningless because he makes his main cause in life to improve the mines by mastering technological and management procedures. Actually I think Lawrence creates such a positive picture of Gerald that he undermines his thesis! I could only think, "Good on you Gerald!", and was rooting for him throughout the book at the expense of Birkin and the sisters. Lawrence has to undermine Gerald by giving him a nasty streak - he makes the miners work too hard, he thumps Gudrun.... But some combination of Gerald's approach with that of his father, who is a Christian and forever trying to ease the lot of the miners, would make for a very attractive character who would really show Birkin up for the incoherent parasite he is, and provide a better, and quite believable, hero for the novel.

Besides the many, lengthy, obscure ramblings about such things as "dark gods" and "the evils of industry", there are too many tedious love scenes, which are even more obscure than the intellectual ramblings - I guess to avoid the censor. The censor would be likely to fall asleep, or skip, before working out what is going on, or if he did would certainly not be sexually excited, just bored to tears, and would think "the wife" or "the servant" wouldn't have the intellectual capacity or interest to follow the book.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 2, 2015 10:43 PM GMT


Killing Floor: (Jack Reacher 1)
Killing Floor: (Jack Reacher 1)
by Lee Child
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars OK, if you fancy a shallow romp, 30 Jan. 2014
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Every character in this novel is two dimensional and cliched, from the action man hero to the fat mayor. But it moves along at a fast pace, and the bad guys get beat up every page or two, which is nice to see once in a while. I mean, you'd be better reading Conrad, but the bad guys in his novels don't always get beat up (thinking Gentleman Brown here...) and sometimes it's nice to see the nasty men get their just desserts in prose that you don't have to mull over, and without having your soul dredged. Still in the end I found it too shallow to be more than a bit boring, so I'll not be reading any more in the series; guess I'll just have to get back to reading the adult stuff, even if it sometimes makes my brain hurt.


Something Happened
Something Happened
by Joseph Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A rather tedious account of everyday angst, 30 Jan. 2014
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This review is from: Something Happened (Paperback)
I didn't find this anything like as amusing as Catch 22 and the situation, an everyday account of a tedious life of a company man, was far from exciting. It's possible to create an interesting novel from such banal circumstances, but Heller doesn't manage it. There is no hint of the "hero" being able to find any way out of his lamentable circumstances, or even a way to live with them. I gave up on him half way through the novel, but hoped that his kids might see a way out of their middle-American nightmare. But no joy there. No sign of joy anywhere, just unremitting blackness. Recommend you read Conrad's Lord Jim instead of this, that's an even deeper trip into the heart of darkness, but at least there's some light on Jim's horizon, and you get a great adventure story to boot.


Lord Jim: A Tale (Penguin Popular Classics)
Lord Jim: A Tale (Penguin Popular Classics)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep and exciting, 30 Jan. 2014
The form of this novel is intriguing, it's delivered in story teller form by the wise old sea dog Marlow as a series of tales delivered in different circumstances: a club somewhere in the tropics, letters to a retired friend in a land locked city,... This might sound contrived, or at one remove from the action, but it works very well. And it had to be this way. You couldn't see things continuously, in real time, through Marlow's eyes as he would have to have been aboard the Patna during Jim's worst moment, making him complicit in Jim's actions, thereby destroying the novel. Sometimes we get Marlow's account of direct encounters with Jim, but Marlow gleans most of the details of Jim's key actions from other, very colourful, sources - like the accursed pirate/baron Gentleman Brown, or the awful senior officers of the Patna. Overall, the novel builds up into a great and exciting adventure tale, and goes deeper into the human psyche than most novels, certainly more than any adventure novel I've read. One observation of Marlow is that Jim cannot cure himself of the mental troubles cause by his inappropriate action on the Patna, but Marlow makes the point that it's not a question of seeking a cure, but of living with the situation. Just one example of the deep and subtle wisdom found throughout this novel, one of the truly great novel in English literature. Read it and see how Jim lives with the consequences of his soul destroying lack of heroism.


The Biographer's Tale
The Biographer's Tale
by A S Byatt
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Gave up with relief, 10 Nov. 2013
This review is from: The Biographer's Tale (Paperback)
When I borrow novels from the library, I read the first few pages to see if it's something I might get on with. This passed that test, but failed my "page 50 test". It was quite a struggle to get to page 50, which was mainly about a biographer doing his initial research, including his trip to look at his subject's house (i.e., looking at the external aspect of a Barrett box, but not talking to anyone) plus getting some useless letters from a library. If this sounds tedious, I've done my job, it was! Then the biographer finds some very scrappy manuscripts full of technical detail on 18th century taxonomy and Lapp geography. Byatt includes them in full, so we can suffer as much as the biographer (only reason I could think of!) By page 50 I was well into the first mind-numbing manuscript, and perusing a very tedious paragraph that included several phrases in Latin. But it was page 50, so I could give up, so I did!


To Kill A Mockingbird
To Kill A Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £5.49

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost as good as Dickens, 8 Nov. 2013
I read this after a re-read of David Copperfield, perhaps my favourite novel, and I was worried that it would suffer by comparison. But, no, it held up very well. Harper Lee captures a sense of childhood innocence & adventure that compares to that of Dickens. It's easier to read than Dickens, and I can see why so many classroom teachers choose it. The characters, although interesting, aren't quite as memorable as those you find in best of Dickens, but what other author can produce characters like Uriah Heep or Mr Micawber? Also the plot is rather straightforward, and doesn't create the "stage fire" or "strange complexity" that Dickens manages to generate. But it's gripping, and I didn't get the "OK, but it's not Dickens", feeling I usually get from even the best of modern novels. More of a "Blimey, that's almost as good as Dickens!"


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