Tag Archive: book review

“This book is impossible: Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen. I was going to die, you see. Or go mad.”

So begins Matt Haig’s book, “Reasons to Stay Alive” in which describes his breakdown and how he adapted to life afterwards. I hesitate to say “recovery” because, as he himself points out, you can be a happy depressive just as you can be an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in years. There are five sections of unequal length: falling, landing, rising, living and being which approximately describe his feelings and insights following his breakdown when he was 24. With hindsight there were warning signs – but then hindsight generally has better glasses than foresight.

I noticed that most reviews on Amazon were very positive but there were a few who either did not like or did not ‘get’ the idea. Having read it all the way through I can see that this book could be helpful to someone who suffers from depression or who is close to someone who is. If you are not familiar with it, this book may not help at all. For example, one person criticised it because it was all about the author, “all about me”. That is to miss the point: depression is indeed often “all about me” but not in a “Look at me and see how important/special I am”. It is more of an “all about how worthless I am and I don’t expect you to take any notice of me let alone agree with me”.

Some useful ideas include page 126f “How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety”. For example, “Don’t take anything personally, any more than your would take someone suffering with the flu or chronic fatigue syndrome or arthritis personally. It is not your fault.” (p 127). The list of “Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression” rang a bell too. Meanwhile, on page 166 onwards, there is his list of famous people with depression. It may or may not help you to know that the list includes: Buzz Aldrin, Winston Churchill, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton and Emma Thompson. The point being that depression does not happen only to “bad” or “weak” people. In fact, it has been remarked elsewhere that it is “The curse of the strong“. A useful metaphor, on page 181, is that if depression is a dark cloud then you are the sky: depression is smaller than you. Although that makes sense, convincing myself of that truth may take some doing.

And finally,

Self Help

How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.

Overall four stars or eight out of ten. Worth buying a copy to read and to lend.

A few of books for Lent

In our parish it is our custom have a Lent course over five weeks and to read an accompanying book. The book may be a course book or the one which the course leaders have used to base their prayers and meditations on. We have settled on the one we shall use in parish for our Lent course. Meanwhile, most of the ones I am reviewing below will work well for individual reading but do not easily work for as course.

“Sacred Space for Lent 2015” appeared in a “you might also like…” on a website. This is a series of short daily Bible readings intended for prayerful reflection and a couple of prayer actions. Each week also has an introduction with suggestions for prayer and meditation. The brevity of each day’s reading means that you can’t use the excuse “I don’t have enough time.” And you can take as long as you like.

The next book is more of a good read. I found the title “The Lent Factor” slightly off-putting as it is an obvious ploy to catch the attention of those familiar with the “X-factor” and the like on television. However, the content is more interesting. The author, Graham James, has provided us with 40 examples of Christians whose lives have inspired him in some way. A few of the names might be familiar to you, even fewer appear in any calendar of Saints. You will find Julian of Norwich here but not St Peter. A glance at a couple of entries drew my curiosity and I am looking forward to getting acquainted with these companions in due course. By the way, Lent is 40 days if you omit Sundays or if you start on the 1st Sunday of Lent (22nd February this year) which is the Sunday after Ash Wednesday.

Thirdly we have “Reflections for Lent” which is also taken from a larger volume, namely “Reflections for Daily Prayer 2014/15”. This provides a daily reflection to go alongside the lectionary readings for morning prayer from Ash Wednesday to Easter Eve (the day before Easter Day). It does not include readings for Sundays, presumably the editors think that its readers will be at church on Sunday and will be catered for there. Included in the book are short forms of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer as well as some introductions. The feature which caught my eye was the section by Samuel Wells called “Making a habit of Lent”. There he introduces the traditional Lenten disciplines such as confession, fasting, giving to charity and Bible reading. I think it is a helpful summary and I intend to refer to this in a later blog.

Finally, we found a book that we liked to use. It has been around a few years now but I had not noticed it before. The title “Spot the difference” lays down a challenge from the outset: how can you tell the difference that marks someone out as a Christian? After all, you do not need to be a Christian in order to be kind and generous. The author offers us five sessions (which neatly fit our need for a course in the weeks after Ash Wednesday and before Holy Week) with a variety of Bible readings, scenarios to consider and questions to discuss – as well as prayers for each session. The style makes suggestions, and asks questions to provoke thought and reflection rather simply telling us what to think. The underlying message is, however, quite clear; namely, that a Christian is someone who is committed to Christ and to following his will in every aspect of their life. One downside to this book is that it does very much leave it to group leaders to decide how much of the material to use each week. You could use it all in a couple of hours in the context of worship but not every group will have that expectation.

“Sacred Space for Lent 2015.” by the Irish Jesuits; published by Ave Maria Press, 2015

“The Lent Factor. Forty companions for the forty days of Lent” by Graham James; published by Bloomsbury, 2014

“Reflections for Lent. 18 February – 4 April 2015” by Malcolm Guite, Ben Quash, Frances Ward, Lucy Winkett; published by Church House Publishing, 2014

“Spot the difference. A group study course for Lent.” by Nick Fawcett; published by Kevin Mayhew, 2006

Take an idea like “nothing” and then invite a variety of scientists, mathematicians and other experts to write about it in their field.This is the premise behind a collection of essays called “Nothing” published by Profile Books and edited by Jeremy Webb.

Thus we have the history and science of the temperature 0K – absolute zero – and what happens to materials such as Helium when cooled to very close to zero degrees. You learn that there are different  kinds of vacuum and that Quantum Physics suggests that a vacuum might not be as ’empty’ as we imagine.

Then there is the history of ‘zero’ both as a number which does funny things (a bit like infinity) as well as being a place marker so that we do not mix up 11, 101, 110 and 1001 etc for instance. We also find out about placebos and their evil twins nocebos. Other topics include the noble gases which, at first glance, do nothing.

This is the sort of book you might dip into or have at your bedside. That is not to say that the reading is especially light but that the style is informal and you don’t have to understand any technical details.

I like this book enough to read it over my cereal but it is not particularly entertaining if you do not have at least some idea what they are talking about. Although I found it readable, I prefer the New Scientist books derived from their ‘Last Word’ feature in the magazine.

Overall three stars or 6 out of ten.

Hitler’s Canary

This book was first discovered in the school library and I have since been able to read a copy from our local public library (yes, there are still some left in this county).

Set in the 1940’s during the Nazi occupation of Denmark during the second World War, we read about Bamse (‘Teddy’), his family and friends as they come to terms with the dramatic and dangerous times they find themselves in. It is fiction based on fact: a small nation overwhelmed by a large modern army; persecution of Jews; acts of resistance both large and small. We learn that blanket distinctions, e.g. Germans=bad, Danes=good, simply were not true. In fact, many people simply acted more out of fear than of malice – though there was plenty of malice to go round. We also learn how the vast majority of Jews were saved from the concentration camps and sent to neutral Sweden with the help of bravery shown by Danish citizens and sympathetic German soldiers. All this as experienced and seen through the eyes of a young boy whose childhood comes to be characterised by some tough lessons.

As a children’s book it took me less than a day to read, even with other duties to do. The author is probably better known as a comedian and as a radio presenter. Here, we learn through fiction and the end notes, something of her Danish family’s history and, for me at least, some of a largely forgotten or ignored part of the history of World War II. I would recommend this book for anyone 9 years, or so, and up; particularly to broaden their historical knowledge, but it is a good story as well.

Overall, I think I would give it fours stars or 7 and a half out of ten.

“Hitler’s Canary” by Sandi Toksvig

The difference between introvert and extrovert? How about these pairs of opposites

  • shy /  outgoing
  • wallflower / party animal
  • follower / leader
  • thinker / doer

Except that, as Susan Cain describes better than I can, this sort of pairing is misleading. For example, a leader may be loud and energetic or quietly spoken – each type of leadership has their place and in the appropriate setting can be very effective. Meanwhile do we really believe that extroverts do not think or that introverts do not act?

What about this group of words: introvert, sensitive, shy? While a person may or may not be all these three, they do not always go together and they are not the same thing. In her book, “Quiet”, backed by research and personal stories, Susan Cain challenges society’s implied assumption that sociable=good and solitary=bad; to put it another way easy conversationalist=good and quiet=bad. She shows that much of the difference between introvert and extrovert is physiological, rather than psychological, and certainly not moral. Introverts and extroverts experience the world differently.

For instance, when at a party, an introvert will be drained by the experience of giving their attention to so many different people and are likely to want to leave early or at least spend some time by themselves. Meanwhile, the extrovert is energised by the experience and is ready for more excitement. On the other hand, as I have found, introverts will be energised by a silent retreat but by the end of the day the extroverts will be utterly drained – and thirsting for social interaction.

It is not true that extroverts are leaders and introverts followers. Extroverts are as likely to be leaders as followers because both roles mean joining in. On the other hand, the introvert is more likely to be an observer, at least to begin with, before joining in. Cain argues that this has implications for the way we raise children and for education too.

For myself, as a strong introvert, I found the book liberating because it is evidence-based. That is to say, it argues that introverts should be understood as being different, not morally suspect, but based on science not just a plea to others to be nice to us. What is more, some introvert characteristics turn out to be strengths: society needs listeners as well as talkers, people who take time to think deeply as well as those who act quickly.

The introvert /  extrovert difference is comparable to being left- or right-handed, male or female. You can adjust to the other way of thinking and behaving – and sometimes it is desirable to do so – but it works better if you go with the grain of your character. When out of our comfortable place we may find strategies to deal with them.

This is a book for introverts to encourage them and for extroverts to help understand them. I thoroughly recommend this book: there is every likelihood that you or someone you love is an introvert.

5 stars, 9 out of 10

Ian Fleming’s Secret War

by Craig Cabell

If we hadn’t been to the museum in Littlehampton, I might not have given this library book a second glance. I am not an avid fan of James Bond and as for the movies I’m generally impressed more by the music than the plot. However, this book gives an insight into the intelligence work Ian Fleming was part of during World War II before he took up the writing that included the James Bond novels.

Two things this book is not. It is not a biography of Ian Fleming. The author has done his research but concentrates on one period of Ian Fleming’s life particularly concerning his involvement with Naval Intelligence in general and 30 Assault Unit. “It is not the remit of this book to give an in-depth study of 30 AU but to simply explain what they did and how Ian Fleming interacted with them in the field” p 83

The book is also not chiefly concerned with identifying the “real” James Bond. Naturally some aspects of Fleming’s work appear to resonate with the plots and characters of his fiction but Cabell asserts that this is more due to the tendency of authors to drawn on their own experiences rather than a deliberate ploy.

Generally the book is an easy read but on several occasions it would appear that the sub-editor did not do their job properly. I did not spot any spelling mistakes but some sentences lacked a main verb or needed a pronoun to make proper sense. For example, p 104 “In reality 100 scientists who opted to work for Britain who used to work on the V rockets.” That sentence as it stands has two dependent clauses but no main verb – a comma after scientists and also in place of the second ‘who’ is one solution.  There were not too many of these but enough of them to spoil the flow of reading.

If you are interested in the history of military intelligence (and there is an interesting aside about the formation of the CIA) then you may wish to read this book. For myself, I am glad that this was a library book and that I can take it back.

As a library book, three stars, otherwise two; 5/10.

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