Non-fiction reading challenge – “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg

I like to set myself an annual reading challenge – it’s a great way of expanding your reading horizons and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the selections I’ve made over the last few years that I’ve been doing it. This year, I decided to do something a little different and set myself the goal of reading twelve non-fiction books. Non-fiction is a genre I neglected a bit last year and yet I come across so many books that look so fascinating.

Tiny Habits
First book of my non-fiction reading challenge complete!

For January, I set myself a relatively easy book, Stanford academic BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits: Why starting small makes lasting change easy. I picked up on this when I was thinking about why so many of us find new year resolutions so difficult to keep. I generally make a conscious choice to not set myself any, in the firm belief that I’m setting myself up to fail! The opening of a new calendar or diary has the powerful effect of making me want to do or change something, however! Instead of resolutions I thought about some new habits I would like to adopt into my life. Nothing too earth-shattering, mainly things like drinking more water, practicing piano daily or writing something (anything!) each day. Small, incremental changes that don’t look that hard to do, but which I have singularly failed to implement in my life to date.

I liked the sound of this book. I like the idea of starting small – this seemed achievable. There is a website to accompany the book,, which includes some free resources and, as you might expect, options to join mailing lists and paid-for courses.

The basic premise of the tiny habits approach is based on the science of psychology: first it’s about finding the motivational sweet spot of a habit (too many of us seem to set ourselves habits that we don’t really want to do, like go to the gym every day); second, it’s about designing behaviour changes that we are actually able to implement (within our means, doable in our daily lives); thirdly, it’s about finding ways to remember to do the things we want to do. I can really identify with this last one – I really want to drink more water, but I just forget! There is an underpinning equation to all of this: B = M A P (Behaviour = Motivation, Ability, Prompt).

This is not a book to be read straight through. It’s more of a workbook, and it is intended that you should implement some changes as you go along. There are lots of exercises at the end of each chapter and appendices with ideas and further resources. My copy now has lots of post-it notes sticking out of it. It’s quite a long book (270 pages, but very small typeface). It’s written in the typical self-help style with lots of anecdotes and a fair bit of repetition. I find most of these kinds of books could be shortened by at least a third!

As with most lasting change, there is no quick-fix method here, although I have to say that this book has helped me to implement some small desirable changes, for example, drinking more water, doing daily stretches, flossing my teeth and reducing my sugar consumption a little. The big take-away for me has been the concept of the ‘Anchor’ – ie pegging a desired new habit to something you already do very reliably like brushing your teeth. This has worked very well for me for the small things; the jury remains out on whether this is going to ‘scale up’ as BJ Fogg promises, into bigger changes. So, for example, if you set yourself the ‘tiny habit’ of one press-up per day, this can in time, evolve into a full-blown exercise regime, and therefore greater health and well-being, because you will be buoyed-up by your success in achieving the single press-up habitually. Fogg is also big on ‘celebrating’, for example, making sure you give yourself some sort of fist pump or similar when you achieve even the tiniest habit. This does not quite suit my English character, but I’m trying!

This is definitely a book I have learned from and one I feel sure I will dip in and out of. If you want to make some major changes overnight this is not going to work, but I am in agreement with the author’s basic premise that small changes have the greatest chance of success and that you can probably build on them over time.

Book two of my 2022 non-fiction reading challenge

Book number two in my non-fiction reading challenge is a very big one: Lebanon: A country in fragments by Andrew Arsan. Lebanon is a country that fascinates me and I had the very good fortune to spend some time there in the late 1990s. I’m looking forward to this one, though it may take me some time!

Interested in self-help books? Here are some others that I have reviewed:

WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel

Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear Elizabeth Gilbert

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

The life-changing magic of tidying by Marie Kondo

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim

Reading the classics – “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

One of the great joys of my life has been to have had the privilege to spend a solid three years of my life engaging with the classics of English literature (University of London, 1990). I have a particular passion for nineteenth and early twentieth century literature and one of my favourites is Thomas Hardy. I read all of his major (and many of his minor) works. I was very young when I read them though and had had nothing like the life experience I have now – of falling in and out of love, getting married, having children, dealing with deaths, dark times, joyful times and the like. Hardy is therefore a particularly interesting author to come back to later in life, when you have been through all those ups and downs of life.

Far From the Madding Crowd

I was delighted when my book club decided we’d read Far From the Madding Crowd. Although it is not my “favourite” Hardy novel, it definitely makes my top five. My favourite is Jude the Obscure, or at least it used to, but perhaps my feelings would be different now, closely followed by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I studied at school (a ‘first love’ if you like). I adore the Roman Polanski film adaptation from 1980, starring Nastassja Kinski which is so loyal to the book.

Bathsheba Everdene is one of English literature’s iconic female characters. Young, spirited, independent and ambitious, Hardy puts her in a position of power (running a business, a thriving farm) which would have been rare for women at the time. Hardy also allows his female characters to feel lust, passion and to follow through on their desires. They are even allowed to have sex! Poor, unfortunate Fanny Robin, pregnant out of wedlock by Sergeant Troy, dies penniless in childbirth. Hardy might even be considered an early feminist writer.

I experienced Far From the Madding Crowd on audio this time, a 2020 release narrated by Olivia Vinall, which was brilliant. It takes a particular skill to get the voices of the opposite sex right and the narrator achieves this extremely well, conveying very successfully the variations in character between Bathsheba’s suitors, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy. I also loved her narration of the rural scenes with the farmworkers which could have been patronising, but were not.

This book is pure joy and so many of Hardy’s passages are simply breathtaking. I frequently found myself bookmarking chapters on the audio so that when I got home I could look up the printed version and immerse myself all over again.

Puddletown in Dorset, renamed Weatherbury in Far from the Madding Crowd

In my book club we also watched the most recent film version, from 2015 starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen. It was beautifully shot, wonderful to look at (because of Hardy, Dorset is my favourite English county); Wessex is well and truly captured. For me, however, it had a couple of fundamental flaws; firstly, it is simply too short! At a little under two hours it cannot deal effectively with all the themes explored in the book and so it is distilled down mainly to the slow-burning love story of Bathsheba and Gabriel. Neither is there sufficient time to truly justify the transition of its main protagonists. Secondly, Carey Mulligan, much as I love her as an actor, is, for me, just too old for the role. By my reckoning she would have been about ten years older than Bathsheba and I think she just comes across as too ‘experienced’, particularly at the beginning.

I have found a great blog from 2017 comparing the different film and television adaptations by Jennifer Rose Writes which seems to favour the original 1967 version starring Julie Christie. At three hours in length it might address at least one of my complaints about the 2015 film. It goes to show how audiences’ tastes and tolerances have changed. So, I am off to watch that.

The classics are classics for a reason – they bear multiple re-readings and it has been such a pleasure to come back to Hardy after so many years. I am resolved to make this a more regular pursuit. Next up, Crime and Punishment, I think.

Give the gift of books this Valentine’s Day!

My local shops are filled with hearts and red and pink things at the moment. I can’t begrudge them the opportunity to generate some profits on higher-margin sales after what have been a couple of very painful years for so many, but my heart sinks somewhat at the ghastly products sold in the likes of Marks and Spencer (which has had a good pandemic), as they further milk the Colin the Caterpillar and Percy Pig brands!

I don’t want to come over all Scrooge-like, however; we all need a bit of fun at this stage in the year and Valentines Day can certainly provide that. If your loved one is less than impressed by pink and shiny things, however, or if you’d like to give a rather more sustainable gift, there can surely be nothing better than a book. Bookshops are working harder than ever and those in my local high street have certainly put out a nice display of options – my lovely local secondhand bookshop (shout out to Abacus Books, Altrincham) always puts on a brilliant, ever-changing locally-themed front window.

The high street shops will cover all the classics of course, but I thought I’d give you a few ideas of my own based on my reading over the last year or two.

The Long Petal of the Sea

The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende – a romantic story of

Set in turbulent times (first the Spanish Civil War, then political unrest in Chile) this is a saga which tells of the love story of Victor and Roser, thrown together by tragedy, they stay together out of duty. But they ultimately discover the true nature of their love for one another after many decades. Based on real events.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – this 1984 classic set at the time of the Prague spring in 1968 follows the relationships of Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabina and her lover Franz. And a dog. Complex and philosophical it is nonetheless a romance of sorts and very sexy!

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – an American classic with a lovely film adaptation. This book tells the powerful story of two devoted young lovers Tish and Fonny in New York, whose lives are torn apart when Fonny is falsely convicted by a racist justice system, of rape. Tish fights for her lover’s aquittal, but she cannot overcome massive institutional hurdles. Can their love survive.

Normal People

Normal People by Sally Rooney – one of the books of the decade, surely, if your loved one has not read this or seen the television adaptation, then you must get it for them. Charming, sexy, with a top-notch male hero it explores the journey of young love, the ups and downs, the turbulence and misunderstandings, but ultimately how people can look after each other’s vulnerability.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – a powerful story about loneliness, friendship and how this can blossom into love. Two young teenagers, from very different backgrounds, with different life experiences and perspectives, different journeys to go on in terms of discovering their sexuality. Charming, heart-warming. Regardless of your gender or sexuality this is a story about the triumph and the beauty of love.

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman – a summer romance set in Italy between an American adolescent on the threshold of adulthood, the son of two academics, and a visiting research student. The setting is beautifully evoked, the blistering heat of the landscape providing the perfect backdrop to the burgeoning sexual feelings between a teenager and the slightly older object of his desire. The romance is real, tender and, like most first loves, painful at times. Beautifully done.

I hope this gives you some ideas – it’s not too late!

Book review – “Dominicana” by Angie Cruz

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

This book first crossed my radar when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2020. Most of us were under severe lockdown restrictions at that time, of course, and spending much of our social and cultural lives on video platforms. This was quite liberating for those of us living outside major cities; lots of cultural outlets, whose activities had been shut down by the pandemic, were forced to seek new sources of income and found them by broadcasting live-streamed Zoom events which anyone anywhere could join. The National Theatre (like other theatres across the globe) had been doing this for years of course with its NT Live and Encore programmes where performances are streamed into regional cinemas, but everyone suddenly got in on the act and it was great! I do live near a major city (Manchester, England), but still most events in the publishing world take place in London. One such event, in the past, has been the Women’s Prize talks, interviews with the shortlisted authors, but in 2020 we were all able to participate, and I even had a question answered!

It was a very strong field in 2020 (it always is!) which included Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (the eventual winner that year), the final part of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Both of the latter books were also Booker Prize shortlisted, Evaristo having won it (jointly with Margaret Atwood) in 2019. When I heard Angie Cruz talking about her book I knew I had to read it. She described it as about the immigrant experience, of a young, naïve girl, moving from her rural home in the Dominican Republic (a small and at that time turbulent nation in the Caribbean Antilles that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti). Ana, the central character, has been married off at the age of fifteen to a suitor who is more than twice her age, who plans to take her with him to New York City. Juan Ruiz is a businessman, the eldest of three brothers who have created modest commercial interests in America, but in Dominica they are the local bigwigs who boast of much greater wealth and power than they actually have, particularly Juan. Ana’s mother sees a chance for the whole family to benefit from Juan’s interest in her daughter; she forces her daughter into the marriage in the hope that the whole family will eventually be able to emigrate to America and make a much better life in the land of opportunity.

On arrival in New York, it soon becomes apparent that Ana has been sold a pup. Juan’s business empire is little more than small-scale trading that he runs out of the apartment to which he now confines his new young wife. Ana is forced to cook and clean for Juan, his cronies and his brothers. Juan forces her to stay indoors and keeps her imprisoned by convincing her that the world outside their door is a place of terror. They reside in a part of town where there are outbreaks of violence associated with the civil rights movement and where sirens seem to blare constantly. Ana has been told that her family will soon join her (Ana mainly misses her brother and wants him to be able to get an American education) but Juan clearly has no intention of facilitating this. It is not entirely clear what Juan wants from Ana; yes, he expects his conjugal rights, but he also has a New York lover, a woman his own age. Ana is little more than a slave.

Juan takes a business trip back to the Dominican Republic – political unrest there means he needs to sort out the family’s affairs. During his absence, Ana ventures beyond the apartment for the first time. She shops, starts English lessons given for free by a local nun and falls in love with Juan’s younger brother Cesar, who has been ordered to look after his sister-in-law and goes above and beyond the call of duty in this respect! By this time Ana is heavily pregnant, but with Cesar she has fun for the first time since she arrived in New York. Encouraged by Cesar, she starts selling her home-cooked pastries to the Dominicans working (mostly illegally) in the clothing factories. Ana begins to find her power.

In The Heights by Lin Manuel Miranda
Lin Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical In The Heights deal with similar themes to Dominicana including the experience of immigrants arriving in New York City from the Dominican Republic

This is a great story; the author described it as based loosely on her own family’s stories. It took me a long time to get to it – it was on my TBR pile for the best part of a year – and when I did get to it, it took me a long time to read. I’m not really sure why, but I couldn’t really get into it. I really wanted to love Ana, but I just did not feel she was fully developed. The chapters were short, the typeface on my edition was, oddly, tiny which made it quite difficult to read, and parts of it, I’m sad to say, just felt like a bit of a slog. There seems to be a bit of a fashion at the moment as well, for not using speech marks – has anyone else noticed this? Perhaps it is me, but I find this really jarring because you sometimes think you are still reading prose, when actually it is dialogue, or vice versa. This worked well in, for example, The Promise, last year’s Booker winner from Damon Galgut, but in Dominicana I found it problematic.

The story ends a bit abruptly for my taste, but not to have ended it where the author did would have entailed many more chapters so there is an argument for closure at that point. This is a powerful story, which needs to be told, but for me there was something missing in the telling.

Sort of recommended.

The East Coast Floods- 1953

This week was the 69th anniversary of the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century, one of the worst ever in fact. On the night of the 31st of January 1953 a storm that began as a depression in the north Atlantic, moved to the North Sea and rolled down the east coast of Britain. Earlier in the day, the storm had already claimed 135 lives when it caused fatal damage to the MV Princess Victoria, an early roll-on/roll-off style ferry operating between Stranraer and Larne in the Irish Sea. This alone was Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

The MV Princess Victoria sank 69 years ago. The story was covered on the Belfast Live news website earlier this week (Image: Mirrorpix)

Tragically, even though the Princess Victoria sank on the afternoon of 31 January, poor communications meant that news of the storm did not reach communities on the east coast. If you look at a map of Britain and the north west coast of Europe you will notice the dramatic narrowing of the North Sea as it reaches Kent and northern France at the English channel. The bit between East Anglia and the Netherlands is shaped like a funnel. And that is exactly how it behaved on the night of 31 January. By tragic coincidence, the storm occurred on the night of a new moon spring tide, when the waters reach high levels anyway. It was, to use an extremely apt expression, ‘a perfect storm’. A huge surge of water could not escape through the channel fast enough and the funnel overflowed in dramatic fashion. The water had nowhere else to go except on to the low-lying flatlands of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and most devastatingly of all, the Netherlands.

Because it occurred in the middle of the night, many homes flooded while their inhabitants slept. Many of those coastal homes were poorly built, timber framed and single-storey. In all, 326 people died in Britain. A further 230 deaths at sea can be attributed the storm. In the Netherlands, there were 1,863 deaths, much of the land being below sea level. The Netherlands has been no stranger to devastating flooding over the centuries and so it has long taken its sea defences programme very seriously, but even the renowned Dutch ingenuity at dealing with the sea was no match for a surge which saw sea levels on that night rise to 5.6m above the norm.

Exhibit at the Watersnoodsmuseum, Ouwerkerk, Netherlands

I know Zeeland, the southernmost region of the Netherlands and the worst affected by the floods, well; I have been visiting it regularly for twenty years. And I first learned about the 1953 storm surge when I was there in 2003 and there were commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary. There is a museum which tells the story of that night in fascinating and very poignant detail. The last time I was there they had a virtual reality exhibit where you could see what it was like to be surrounded by rising waters inside your own home. It seemed to me extraordinary that I had never heard about the disaster at home, even though I grew up in Essex.

I have been wanting to write about this neglected piece of British history for a very long time and have been ruminating on a novel which I had hoped might be publishable on the 70th anniversary of the disaster (this time next year) – if I’ve any hope of meeting that deadline I’d better get my skates on! In December I made a long-delayed trip to Canvey Island in Essex to undertake some research. Sadly, the Canvey Island Heritage Museum, the only museum I know of in the UK which has information about the floods, has been closed since the start of the pandemic. But just walking around the island (it is tiny) gave me a powerful sense of what it might have been like. Canvey Island lies in the Thames estuary and is separated from its nearest town, Benfleet, by a wide creek. Until the early 1900s, the only means of access was via a causeway at low tide, on foot or by horse and cart. Canvey lies barely above sea level and 58 people on the island lost their lives on the night of 31 January, many of them children. It suffered the greatest loss of any of the towns and villages affected that night.

Canvey Island flooding 1953
Flooding in Cavey Island, 1953 (Image: PA/PA Archive)

The memories of the island’s terrible experience are still palpable today. Along the sea wall, a powerful mural depicts some of the stories of that terrible night. I remember visiting Canvey as a child – it was a sort of seaside place. No-one would disagree that the island has seen better days; people think that the south-east of England is all bright lights, prosperity and high property values, but it isn’t. The sense of community remains powerful, however, and, sitting in the local library poring over their collection of books about the flood I was struck by the sense of separateness felt, as a mark of pride. I hope the pictures below convey a small part of its specialness.

Images from the Sea Wall murals on Canvey Island, an example of the steel gates that now provide protection to the islanders, and houses lying on land that is as low as the level of the sea on the other side of the wall.

The trip gave me a powerful impetus to get the book started – and I have! I am writing this post now, partly to put a marker down that, hey, I’m doing this! Trying to make myself accountable. But also to draw attention to this terrible disaster that seems to have slipped from our national memory.

January in pictures

A monthly feature where I share some pictures and only a few words about what has been going on in my life for the last month.

What I’ve been reading (though not necessarily completed) this month

Two family birthdays, two cakes and some Malaysian recipes

And two beautiful winter walks, one sunny (Dunham Massey) …

…and one very grey! (Hollingworth Lake and the Rochdale canal, and a very friendly pony)

I hope you had a good January. The days are starting to get a little longer here, so roll on spring!

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