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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

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In this book, author Suzanne Morrison tells the story of how, aged 25, she went to Bali for two months for a yoga retreat – hoping to find the answers to life’s philosophical questions, such as is there a god? and also hoping to find her direction in life. She is preparing to move from her native Seattle to New York with her boyfriend, but there is another man who she just can’t stop thinking about, she is concerned about how much she will miss her family, and hopes that the retreat will provide the answers. (Almost) inevitably things do not turn out how she expects – the yoga instructor who she idolises turns out to have feet of clay and an ego, Suzanne struggles with having to give up alcohol, cigarettes and sugar, and is horrified to discover that her yoga friends all drink their own pee and insist she should do the same. And then there’s the whole issue of household items becoming possessed and needing exorcisms…

I really enjoyed this book, and I think my enjoyment was enhanced by the fact that I personally love yoga, but you definitely don’t need to practice yoga to read this. It is mostly told in diary form, although at the beginning of each chapter, Morrison writes from the present day (the retreat was in 2001) and reflects upon her current life. There are some extremely funny moments – who wouldn’t share her horror at discovering that it’s not coffee that her flatmate is downing every morning?! But there are also some more serious moments, as Morrison questions her faith or lack of, her relationship with boyfriend Jonah, and her purpose in life. She is witty and engaging and I think I would probably like her very much in real life.  I also liked her yoga buddies, especially Jessica and Jason (her flatmate and neighbour). The one person who came out of the book quite badly was the yoga teacher Indra, who to my mind was everything that puts some people off trying yoga. As just one example, the guilt that she piles onto Suzanne and Jessica because they – horror! – had a coconut vanilla milkshake, was completely unreasonable. If I joined a studio that was run by people like Indra and her partner Lou, I’d probably be cancelling my membership pretty quickly!

Lots of laughs and plenty to think about here – I would definitely recommend this book, especially to people who do have their own yoga practice.

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In 2009, journalist Susan Mauhart came to the realisation that her three children – and herself – were over-consuming screen media (tv. computer games, and predominantly the internet). In fact they were positively inhaling it. Fed up of conversations with the backs of their heads, and not being able to do anything as a family because all they all wanted to do was get back to their screens, she imposed a six month moratorium on all screen related media. This book is a journal of those six months as well as studies and observations about the effect of media – particularly social networks – on individuals, and the knock-on effect on family.

The effect on the family are perhaps not unexpected. After the initial shock, the family began to spend more time together, enjoyed lingering family meals where they would talk – genuinely talk – about their day, and they took up new interests (or resurrected old ones). But despite being able to guess pretty much how the family dynamic would change, this book did make it’s point very well. And bear in mind this experiment was in 2009!! Facebook was big but only five years old – and MySpace was still hugely popular. Twitter was just three years old, and neither Instagram nor Pinterest had even been invented. So as obsessed as Susan’s three teenage children – Anni, Bill and Sussy – seemed to be, it was probably nothing compared to the kind of thing you see everywhere today – people of ALL ages walking round, head down, glued to the phone. People sitting in restaurants together, but both distracted by their own screens. Even the rate of people getting knocked over in traffic has risen year over year since 2013, because of what is known as the ‘head-down generation’ – people crossing the road while looking at their screens instead of traffic.

So this book does provide food for thought, taking into account the effect of too much screen time on babies and toddlers as well as older children and teenagers. I personally found Maushart’s writing style to be witty and engaging, and this made it an easy read. As she herself observes, when writing about social media, everything is out of date almost as soon as it’s printed, and this is writing about something that happened eight years ago, but the point it makes is still valid.

For anyone interested in the effect of social media, I would recommend this book.

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A renowned cyberpsychologist (no, I hadn’t heard of that job title either) discusses the impact of the cyberworld which we are all living in, our 24/7 connection to the internet, and the effect that it is having on a generation that are growing up with the internet as a huge part of their lives.

Admittedly, the subtitle of this book, A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist explains how human behaviour changes online – led me to expect something different. I thought it was going to be more about how perfectly decent and reasonable people often descend into bullying, unkind, trolling behaviour when hiding behind the anonymity of their keyboard. There is a chapter that deals with this, but generally speaking the book is more generalised, but still an interesting subject to discuss.

I wanted to read it because I do think this is an important and fascinating subject. Because I find it interesting and upsetting to walk into a restaurant and see a couple eating at the same table, but not really together because both of them have their eyes glued to their phones. Because it’s not unusual to see a group of young friends walking together, each looking at their own smartphone screens. Because there is now a whole wealth of knowledge at people’s fingertips, yet a lot of it is false or biased.

Unfortunately I also found this book to be incredibly biased. Yes, technology is isolating for some people, but there is so much good about it too. Dr Aiken says in the introduction that she wants to keep the book fairly science-light, which she does. This makes it easier to read in many respects, but also means that a lot of what she says comes over as purely her opinion with very little if anything to back it up. There’s a lot of “I would guess…” “It is my belief that…” “I believe…” etc. She does state a couple of times that there are a lot of positives about the internet, but doesn’t really acknowledge what they are, and focusses heavily on the negative.

Some of the subjects raised are vitally important – the aforementioned effect of bullying online, and how it is affecting mainly young people. There was one chapter about the effects of screens at close range to a child’s face and the effect it can have on that child’s vision. Cyberchondria – i.e., the obsessive checking of physical symptoms online and being convinced that you have the most serious disease imaginable. But none of these are new phenomenons. I remember the debates about whether it was right or just lazy to stick a child in front of the tv for very long. Bullying is unfortunately something that has been around as long as humans have, and hypochondria is a long recognised problem for many people – sure the internet has given people a new way to do all of these things, but it hasn’t caused the problems in the first place.

Although there is little anecdotal evidence to support what Dr Aiken says, she does occasionally come up with examples of what she is trying to say – usually tragic, anomalous stories (let’s face it, you can find one story to support almost anything you believe if you look hard enough).

I will say that Dr Aiken has an engaging and readable style and had the book been more balanced I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it was, it comes across as more of a lost opportunity than anything else. An important subject, but a more open-minded discussion would have been nice.

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After hitch-hiking around Ireland with a fridge, enlisting the help of Norman Wisdom and Tim Rice to have a one hit wonder, playing the Moldovans at tennis and doing something with a piano in the Pyrenees (not sure what exactly as I haven’t read that particular book yet), Tony Hawks takes on his biggest challenge yet – moving with partner Fran from London, his home for 30 years, and buying a cottage in rural Devon. There, they have to get used to a change of scene, change of lifestyle and change of pace.

Tony and Fran embrace their new surroundings and new neighbours, and meet the challenges that are thrown at them with enthusiasm and gusto (if not always unqualified success). When they discover that Fran is pregnant, Tony realises that there is time for just one more challenge – cycling coast-to-coast with a micro pig named Titch.

I have always enjoyed Tony Hawks’ books and this one was no exception. At many times it is laugh-out-loud funny – and I do mean literally – laugh-out-loud. I found myself bursting into giggles on a number of occasions (the scene where Tony attends a Zumba class had me in stitches). He also adds in his own thoughts about the environment and man’s effect on it, and impending fatherhood. The book ends on a sweet note which I am reluctant to spoil for other readers, so I won’t!

Overall, if you have enjoyed Hawks’ other books, I am sure you will enjoy this one too. If you have never read him before, don’t delay any longer! This is extremely enjoyable, funny and heart-warming. Oh – and I adored the micro pig Titch!

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Just a short review for my final book of this year…it’s a look back at the crazy events of 2016, focussing a lot on two huge shock decisions – the Brexit Vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the USA.

Read it and weep…and laugh! It’s very funny and very scathing – but it does take a chapter to remind us that there have been far worse years in the past, and some good things around the world did take place this year.

One word of warning – if you don’t like bad language, this is a book to avoid. It is peppered with swearing and lot of very inventive insults!

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In this enchanting true story, Tom Michell relates how in the 1970s, when he was in his early 20s and teaching in an Agentinian boys boarding school, he encountered a penguin who became his best friend. He saw the penguin on a beach covered in oil and near death as the result of a recent oil slick and on an impulse decided to rescue him and clean him up, with the intention of then releasing him back into the wild. However, the penguin refused to leave his side, and so after naming him Juan Salvador, Michell became the proud adopter (or adoptee?) of his new feathered friend.

Juan Salvador soon becomes a favourite among staff and students alike at the boarding school and brings a little magic into all of their lives. Through his and Tom Michell’s story, the reader also learns a little about the Argentinian political situation at the time, and how badly inflation was affecting the poorest in the country, and there is also some insight into life in the boarding school.

Mostly though, this is Juan Salvador’s story; it is he who is the true focus of the book, and what a delight he is. Michell describes the penguin’s own little personality and quirks and really brings him to life on the page.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – it’s a quick read, both because it is only just over 200 pages, and also because I didn’t want to put it down. Highly recommended.

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Shakespeare and Me is a collection of essays by a variety of (mainly) writers, actors and directors, on what Shakespeare means to them and how he is still such a big part of modern culture. Throughout the essays, most of Shakespeare’s plays are mentioned, with many of the writers concentrating on just one.

As with all books featuring contributions by different people, some appealed more than others. My personal favourites were the three essays on Othello, and especially James Earl Jones’s ‘The Sun God’ (I was amused by the fact that he mentions actor Hugh Quarshie, and writes that he thinks Quarshie should play Othello – this essay was written prior to Quarshie’s performance as Othello at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last year, which I was lucky enough to see). Eammon Walker – who himself played a fantastic Othello at the Globe Theatre – writes ‘Othello in Love’; and Barry John writes ‘Othello: A Play in Black and White’ which studied how the staging of a production of Othello started to draw parallels to the play itself.

I also enjoyed Re-revising Shakespeare by Jess Winfield of the Reduced Shakespeare Company; Shakespeare and Four-Colour Magic by Conor McCreery (where he discusses turning Shakespeare and his characters into comic book stars), and Ralph Fiennes’s ‘The Question of Coriolanus’.

If you have any interest in Shakespeare, I recommend this book.

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