Nonfiction Book for a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is a fabulous read for anyone feeling unsettled, stressed out or anxious. In other words, pretty much everyone. It’s a small book packed with wisdom in bite-sized pieces – some sections are a few pages, others are a few paragraphs, or a poem, or a short list of things like “5 reasons to be happy you are human and not a sentient robot.”

Haig experiences anxiety, panic attacks and depression. His books – both fiction and nonfiction – tackle issues of mental health with the humility and insight of someone who has been there. In Notes, he applies research, wit and a touch of humor in exploring the complexities and ironies of modern-day life.

He waxes both poetic and philosophic on topics like “the big picture” and “internet anxieties,” as well as the “shock of the news” and “phone fears.” He offers thoughts on sleep, wanting, despair, happiness, self-image and transcendence. Haig doesn’t tell you what to do or that everything is OK. He does offer ways to help you get a handle on your life, to take control in small ways, to make things less-bad. He also offers hope that life can be OK, maybe even be better than OK.

Some reviewers lamented the repetitive nature of the book. It’s true, Haig does repeat certain points and ideas multiple times. That’s part of the book’s beauty.  He keeps reminding you (gently, prudently, clearly) of important things that are so easy to forget.

I marked dozens of passages and pages so that I can return to them later. One section in particular hit me right between the eyes: Algorithms Eat Empathy. In two succinct pages, Haig explains how algorithms can make our lives easier and, seemingly, make us happier. When we shop online, we are shown things we may like, things “people like us” buy. Easy-peasy. On social media, we’re shown lists of people who are like the people we already follow. More people like us. Great.

“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe,” Haig writes, “because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”

This new ease of getting and doing stuff has only been possible in the past two decades or so. Think about that. For thousands of years before, Haig explains, “We had to go out and compromise and deal with people who weren’t like us. With things that weren’t like the things we liked. And it was horrid. But now it might be even worse. Now we might end up utterly hating anyone who doesn’t think like us…. People with similar views end up falling out, unable to stomach even the slightest difference of opinion, until they are trapped in a little echo chamber of one, reading a million versions of the same book, listening to the same song, and retweeting their own opinions until the end of time.”

No wonder we’re all so stressed out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is still so new. We still have time to take control of it. Haig reminds us that we are humans (which, per the list referenced previously, is something to be happy about). We can resist being confined. The internet can be our ally. It can be what we want it to be. “We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”

Well said.

Here are few more sections and lines from the book that spoke to me:

  • Future Tense details out how we are not encouraged to live in the present. Starting with Kindergarten, we’re taught “to think of the future, of a time different to the time we are in. Exam time. Job time. When-we-are-grown-up time. To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. The act of learning… is an end in itself. It is a way to love living right now.”
  • In a one-paragraph entry about happiness, titled Maybe, Haig proposes several ideas. Among them…

“Maybe happiness is not about us, as individuals. Maybe it is not something that arrives into us. Maybe happiness is about what we already have. Maybe happiness is about what we can give…” ~@matthaig1 #NotesOnANervousPlanet #bookreview

  • Finally, I leave you with this. A section under the heading Fiction is Freedom. “Reading isn’t important because it helps you get a job. It’s important because it give you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

* If you decide to purchase Matt Haig’s book, consider using the Bookshop.org link below. A portion of sales at the site helps support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Book Recommendation – Simon the Fiddler

Paulette Jiles has secured her place among my list of favorite authors with her latest novel, Simon the Fiddler. Set in Texas, 1865, the book paints an evocative picture of life in the young, rough-edged state at the conclusion of the Civil War. It tells the tale of 23-year-old Simon Boudlin, an ambitious Kentucky fiddle player, and “the ragtag band of musicians with whom he travels ,” as well as the lovely Irish immigrant who captures his heart.

I loved Jiles’ novel News of the World for its economy; it’s similar to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (one of my all-time favorites) in the way it delivers richly-drawn multi-dimensional characters and a dramatic story with so few words. Both are slim novels – at roughly 200 pages each in their first edition hardcover formats – that pack a powerful punch.

Simon the Fiddler captivated me for different reasons. It could have been equally potent at 200 pages. Yet, Jiles flexed her descriptive muscles, filling another 150 pages with details of time and place, poverty and longing, music and love. While some readers may be put off by her lyrical and often lengthy description, I was transported. It was an unhurried deeply-satisfying read packed with fully-realized, endearing characters.

In describing Galveston immediately following the Civil War, Jiles wrote, “The lamps in the saloons burned coal oil or whale oil, the beams overhead creaked in the wind of the Gulf, the streets were incandescent under the gas lamps. Sometimes bats streaked through the white light, moths danced in a city of seagulls and scarred buildings.”

Simon loved music and hated cities. He dreamed of owning land near a river.

“There would be a spring of clear water and around it great pecan trees, deer would bed down in the post-oak mottes at night. Wild horses would tread the smoking earth in dimly seen caravans, the breath of the great brown buffalo drifting white in the winter air.”

These are just two examples from a book brimming with evocative description and a strong sense of place, which secured its 5-star rating from me. If you enjoy historical fiction that immerses you in expressive, detail-packed passages that make you slow down and go back to reread them, pick up a copy of Simon the Fiddler. If you prefer a faster-paced read that stirs emotion, News of the World is a fabulous choice.

* If you decide to purchase either of Jiles’ novels, check out Bookshop.org at the links below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Literary Novel Portrays Life with Huntington’s Disease

Reading novels enables us to understand and feel the thoughts and experiences of another person. Fiction, if it is done well, transports the reader to the fictional character’s world and life. Author Malorie Blackman puts it this way, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

An excellent example of this is Anne Pete’s new novel, The Speed of Life, about a woman coping with the fallout of her Huntington’s Disease (HD) diagnosis. HD is a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities – usually striking in one’s 30s or 40s – and has no cure. May is National HD Awareness Month, the perfect time to read this heartrending, insightful and, ultimately, inspiring novel.

There currently are about 41,000 symptomatic Americans living with HD, according to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA). More than 200,000 are at-risk of inheriting it. HD manifests as a triad of motor, cognitive and psychiatric symptoms, which progressively get worse over time. Its symptoms are often described as having ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases simultaneously. It’s hard to imagine the impact that can have on the lives of people with the disease and of the people who love and care for them.

Pete’s novel sheds transcendent light on those lives with sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace. The story enables you to walk in the shoes of a women coming to terms with a past she tried to ignore and a future she never anticipated.  Please read my full review of The Speed of Life, and consider downloading the ebook at Amazon or your favorite ebook retailer.

May is #HuntingtonsDisease Awareness Month. @AnnePeteAuthor’s novel, THE SPEED OF LIFE, brings sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace to the realities of living with HD. #LetsTalkAboutHD #ReadingFostersEmpathy

If you read The Speed of Life, please share your thoughts about it in the comments below.

To learn more about Huntington’s Disease, visit www.HDSA.org online and follow #LetsTalkAboutHD and #HDSAfamily on social media.


Historical Fiction Makes Us Feel

Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.

  • The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
  • Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
  • The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez



Book Recommendation – The Power of Meaning

book Meaning of Life

What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? These are questions that have taunted mankind since the beginning of time. The Power of Meaning provides a straightforward and inspiring answer, based on extensive research and analysis. Simply put, the meaning of life is to find meaning in life. And it’s actually easier to find than we are often led to believe.

“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted,” writes the author. “… and meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.”

There is so much to this book, it’s hard to boil it down in a review. (I found myself rereading and marking lines on page after page, and I handwrote six pages of notes upon completing it.) By summarizing dozens of psychological studies, presenting scores of anecdotes and stories about real people, and sharing many of her own thoughts and insights on the differences between happiness and meaning, Smith ultimately brings the reader to the simplest of revelations.

Belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence: these are the four pillars of meaning, and they are accessible to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds or economic status. As someone who has made a living as a professional writer and author, I was particularly struck by the storytelling section. Though it was not surprising to me that story plays a critical role in finding fulfillment in life, it was fascinating to learn the many reasons why (both for the storytellers themselves, as well as for listeners or imbibers of those stories). The author turned to several novels to help illustrate her points – from Middlemarch and The Little Prince to Life of Pi and The Death of Ivan Ilych – as well as numerous memoirs.

I especially liked this point:

“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we are telling them. One of the greatest contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”

And, how we perceive our lives and stories is directly related to whether we ultimately find fulfillment in them.

The sections on belonging, purpose and transcendence are equally fascinating. They are packed with examples of how seeking and finding fulfillment leads to better physical and mental health, helps us overcome traumatic events, and guides us to lasting contentment rather than fleeting happiness.

I highly recommend this book to all who want to expand how they view the world and the people with whom they share it.

* If you decide to purchase Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Book Recommendation – All That is Solid Melts Into Air

All That is Solid Melts Into Air

One of the first books I read this year was All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon. It immediately landed on my list of all-time favorite reads. As 2017 comes to a close, I still miss the people in the book terribly. Yes, I know they are fictional characters; that is the magic that fuels this novel. McKeon has created full-bodied, living, breathing, feeling characters – mistreated, yet resilient; impassive, yet loyal; flawed, yet perfect. Add to that the author’s beautiful prose and his amazing talent for descriptive storytelling, and this is a book that will linger in my mind for years. 

Here is a summary from the publisher:

All That Is Solid Melts into Air is a gripping end-of-empire novel, charting the collapse of the Soviet Union through the focalpoint of the Chernobyl disaster.

In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbors. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a leading surgeon buries himself deep in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in the Ukraine, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. In the fields, the ears of the cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened.

Now their lives will change forever.

If you’re looking for a thrilling page-tuner or a happily-ever-after story, this is not the book for you. It explores the impact not only of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986, but also the horrible repercussions of an oppressive Soviet regime on its people. In the paperback edition, the author also includes a closing essay that details the continued and tragic health and quality-of-life consequences suffered by the people of the region more than 25 years later.

This is a book that will make you cringe, and weep, and think, and worry. It is sad. It is terrifying. And yet, it is exquisite in so many ways. As a reader, I was blown away by its beauty and depth. As an author, I was envious as hell. McKeon raised the bar for all my reading and writing.

* If you decide to purchase McKeon’s novel, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Learn from Great Memoirists

Memoirs photo 3Memoirs have always been in my reading repertoire, and Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club is among my favorites. She grew up in a small, poor Texas town in a family rife with alcoholism, violence and mental illness; through it all, despite it all, she maintained a fierce love for and gained a keen understanding of her family. Karrs’ latest book, The Art of Memoir, is technically a how-to writing book, though it also feels part-memoir. She shares many insights about how she wrote and revised her other work — the internal struggles she faced in realizing the truth, coming to terms with it and sharing it with the world. There is much we can learn from great memoirists.

Karr explains many elements of memoir writing – what works, what does not, and why.  As a reader, it explained a lot to me about why I have been deeply touched by some memoirs and have been turned off by others. As a writer, it confirmed my notions that many elements of strong writing cross all genres.

This author has a sassy, smartass writing style, which I love. Karr pulls no punches with the reader, nor with herself. She is honest and real, flawed and relatable. It takes great courage to bare your life and soul in a public way, with the hope for personal healing and the belief that it may help others heal as well. Karr not only rises to this challenge personally, she also highlights and applauds many other writers who’ve done the same in this risky and demanding genre that she loves. Her analysis of their works is enlightening.

I have no desire to write a memoir (pause for collective sigh of relief from family and friends), but this is a book I will keep and reread. If you are a writer and/or enjoy reading memoirs, I highly recommend this insightful tome. I added several titles to my to-read pile, thanks to her recommendations. Her insights also got me thinking about some of the memoirs that have moved me. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):


Becoming an Australian Author Fangirl

Book Railwaymans WifeIt’s possible I’m becoming an Australian author fangirl. Several of my favorite reads in the past few years, it recently dawned on me, are written by Australian authors. Two are set near an Australian coast just after World War II. Two others are set in different countries and different centuries. All are historical novels, masterfully written. They’re lush, lyrical, descriptive works that delve deep into the minds and hearts of their characters. They’re all a bit dark (one incredibly so) and a bit heartbreaking. One in particular made me sob so fiercely I had to pause reading to compose myself.

Is it simply a coincidence these four books captured my attention and lingered in my mind for months, even years, after I read them?

Or is there something unique in the way Australian authors approach fiction writing?

I don’t know the answer. But, I do have a profound urge to travel to the land down under and see if there is perhaps something in the water that cultivates such talent. I aspire to write books with such heart and soul and magic at these.

The following links will take you to my Goodreads reviews:

Click this link for a fabulous review by my friend and fellow writer Melissa Crytzer Fry.

 

Book Light Between Oceans  Book Bitter Greens  Book Burial Rites