New rules for life?

I dip into self-help books from time to time and have a reviewed a few on here, from Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, which aims to improve our relationship with the things in our home, to Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, which helped me to change my mindset about my right to be creative and to think of myself in that way. Both very powerful. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet (audiobooks seems to take me much longer to get through), which I have found immensely enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to say it was inspirational. I also picked up Jordan Peterson’s much-hyped 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos although I’m afraid I found it quite turgid and didn’t get very far before I had to take it back to the library for the next person on the reserve list.

So, I originally planned for this post to be a compare and contrast between the two, but it’s going to focus more on the Haig, which, from what I read, was better anyway. Matt Haig has suffered with depression and anxiety for much of his life and it sounds as if this has at times been debilitating. Mental illness is a huge topic of conversation at the moment, rightly so, and it is very much a spectrum from occasionally feeling down or going through periods of stress and anxiety, to full-blown depression that afflicts people for years, to suicide. Matt Haig does not use this book directly to examine or discuss his own battles with depression, it’s not a memoir, but he does refer to it throughout as a way of illustrating his points.

Matt Haig’s book is more about how modern life is placing almost unbearable pressures on human beings today. He is particularly concerned about young people, and the impact of social media on their mental health. Social media forces us all into unrealistic comparisons where we will inevitably fall short. And the fact that we are constantly connected, constantly reachable and how it is so difficult to ‘switch off’ (both literally and figuratively) makes so many of us vulnerable. It is ironic that at a time when we have more ‘friends’ and followers than ever before, we seem to be more lonely than ever. This topic has been in the news again this week as new research undertaken by the BBC is revealing the extent of loneliness felt amongst young people in particular.

Notes On A Nervous Planet is, in my view, required reading, especially for young people. There are lots of people on my Christmas list who will be getting copies. I listened to it on audiobook and found Matt’s lovely, warm voice, made it particularly compelling. I will  now buy the book, however, it’s one I’d definitely like to read again.

By contrast, the little bit I read of Jordan Peterson’s left me rather cold. I think with self-help books, there are just the ones you like and the ones you don’t, and I’m afraid 12 Rules for Life probably falls into the latter category. His rules include “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t” and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”. I’m sure there is some real wisdom in some of these more cryptic headlines, but there are a lot of words to plough through before you get to it and, sadly, it did not resonate with me. I fell asleep several evenings, just reading the (very long) Foreword! I’ll give it another go, when my turn comes around for the reservation, but I’ll not be rushing out to buy it. As a general rule, I don’t do very well with ‘Rules’ and prescriptions, particularly for something as chaotic as life.

If you have read either of these books, I’d be interested to know what you think.

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Book review: “Death on the Nile” by Agatha Christie

This is my second Agatha Christie this year. Having never in the past felt a particular desire to read her work, I have to say that I am completely won over! I chose this book for August in my Facebook reading challenge, which happened also to coincide with my summer holiday. When I stop and think, there is something a little odd about choosing books about death and misery for the kind of escapist material I usually seek for holiday reading, but there is a kind of unreality about the two books I have read, a kind of nostalgia for a bygone era. I do also love the sense of place that Christie evokes; I found this to be true also of Murder on the Orient Express, which I read in January, although in this novel, there are some anachronistic references to the Egyptians which make a modern reader wince slightly.

Death on the Nile imgIn some ways, there is not a great deal to say about Death on the Nile that you couldn’t say about any other Christie novel, I suspect: there is a situation, in this case, a Nile cruise, being undertaken by 10-15 characters, all for different reasons. Conflicts and tensions are set up amongst the different characters, mysterious aspects of their personality or behaviour are noted, one of their number dies and then there is a process of detection to work out whodunnit. I did largely guess the correct outcome in the case of this novel, although I didn’t with Orient Express.

Both the Christie novels I have read are Poirot novels (these make up a third of Christie’s impressive oeuvre) and he is, of course, a marvellous central character – quirky, consistent, charming, and with a brilliant mind. David Suchet played Poirot to great acclaim in the wonderful UK television series, and although I am familiar with them I have to confess I never actually watched them! Suchet was in my mind, however, as I was reading the book.

I found the book unputdownable. I was eager for each new chapter, each new revelation; you can argue until the cows come home about whether this is “great literature” or something more “popular” but you can’t ask for much more than that, in my view. Wonderful characterisation, brilliant plotting, vivid imagination and storytelling that keeps you gripped to the end.

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Quite a back catalogue!

Reading these two books this year has definitely made me want to read more Christie. I find the novels quite quick reads, just as well since there are nearly 70 of them! I feel the need now to start with the first Poirot novels, to see how his character begins and how the author develops it over time. I also fancy like to binge-watching all those Poirot television dramas – there must be a channel somewhere showing them! A project for when the nights start drawing in, perhaps.

 

 

 

Christie is such a clever writer and one who clearly understood her readership and gave them what they wanted. Yes, I suppose they are rather formulaic, but when the world feels rather unpredictable there is no harm in getting what you expect from a book!

Recommended.

What appeals to you about Agatha Christie?

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Why book ratings are pointless!

If  you have read any of the book reviews I publish on this blog, you will note that I do not give star ratings, marks out of ten or anything like that. I will recommend or not (usually the former – even if I have not enjoyed something, I will try to think about who might like it) and, particularly in the case of the children’s books I review, I will say what age group I think it’s appropriate for and any issues parents might like to be aware of. For example, books marketed for, say, 11-13 year olds might contain references to violence or death, which will be okay for some kids, but not if they’ve just lost a pet, grandparent or are on the sensitive side. Star ratings, on the other hand, are a blunt instrument.

I am a keen member of the Goodreads website and I write short reviews of most things I read (haven’t caught up on the back catalogue I listed when I joined, though!). I hate giving the star rating and find even my own ratings are inconsistent from one book to the next, so how on earth can a reader compare a 4-star rating one person has given to a 2-star rating from someone else? If you read the review, I guess that gives you the reader’s justification for their rating, but the trouble with star ratings is that you are immediately drawn to the high level score rather than the longer-form explanation.

(The erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey gets the same score of 3.66 on Goodreads as Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey! But are they comparable?)

What justifies a star-rating anyway? Is it how much you’ve enjoyed something? Or how GOOD you think it is? They are not necessarily the same thing. For example, I recently reviewed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on this blog and on Goodreads, after I set it as the book for March on my Facebook Reading Challenge. I think it is fair to say that most people involved in the Challenge did not love the book, and yet it is one of the great classics of world literature. I loved it (but then I love the classics generally), but I cannot say, hand on heart, that I sat wrapt for every moment I was reading it. This 19th century novel was definitely hard work in places for a 21st century reader. Yet, there are plenty of books I’ve read recently which I could not put down. One that comes to mind is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, but you would probably not say it was a classic; it’s the sort of book you’ll find in the hospital League of Friends bookstall! The Goodreads rating for Madame Bovary is 3.65 and for The Secret Life of Bees is 4.02, but will the latter still be in print in 150 years time?

I’m not really sure what this very unscientific comparison tells us, except that readers’ tastes change all the time. I gave Madame Bovary 5 stars because I recognise it as a great book, and acknowledge its longevity and its place in world literature, but others who hated it will have given it 1 star. But my enjoyment of it was a different kind of pleasure to reading The Secret Life of Bees.

I recognise the inconsistencies in my own ratings too – I am more likely to give a book a higher rating if it has met my expectations or if it was appropriate for the time I was reading it. This would explain the 1 star I gave to George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in The Bardo and the 4 stars I gave to Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox – the latter struck a political chord and moved me, but it’s not literary. And when I’m reviewing a children’s book, I try to rate it from the point of view of how much I think the target audience might enjoy it. But children’s tastes can be difficult to predict!

So, the answer really is to ignore the star rating and read the review – would you agree?

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