Mindset – free your mind and the rest will follow

Mindset by Dweck, Carol (9781780332000) | BrownsBfS

I ordered Dr Carol S. Dweck’s Mindset after reading an interesting article that mentioned it. It sounded like a fascinating study of the human mind and how our mindset affects every aspect of our lives. When it arrived, I was suspicious. It looked like any other self-help book promising to help you ‘fulfil your potential’ whether in ‘business, parenting, school or relationships’, and it did have some of the hallmarks of those kinds of books – lots of testimonials, repetition to the point where it sometimes felt like you were being beaten around the head with a simple idea that any idiot could immediately understand, and some real cringe moments, like when little Jimmy learns about the growth mindset and looks at Carol ‘with tears in his eyes’ and says ‘You mean I don’t have to be dumb?’

There are a lot of kids in this book that beggar belief, as they rub their hands together in glee when given a hard puzzle and say ‘I was hoping this would be informative!’ But scratch the all-American surface of this book and you’ll find some really interesting research on the difference between a fixed mindset (talent is what’s important; our abilities and intelligence are innate) and a growth mindset (effort and determination are what’s important; our brains and abilities are entirely flexible).

The book looks at the features and effects of the two different mindsets when it comes to raising kids, romantic relationships, education, sports and running companies, and it invites you to consider where the fixed mindset spots in your life are.

  • Do you give up on something if you don’t take to learning it as quickly as you expected to, or as quickly as those around you?
  • Do you believe that musical geniuses, amazing artists and top athletes have special, innate talents and were just born different to the rest of us?
  • Are you impressed by people who can achieve things seemingly without effort?
  • Are you more proud of the things that you can achieve without effort than things you’ve slaved over?
  • Do you ever get waylaid by a little voice in your head that says you’re no good at this or that, that you’ll never be good at it and that you shouldn’t bother wasting your time on it?
  • Do you ever feel the need to protect an image of yourself as someone who’s talented at something, even at the expense of learning more about it?
  • Do you believe that some people are natural winners in life and others are natural losers?

If any of these things are even slightly true of you, give this book a read – I hope you’ll find it genuinely inspiring and insightful, as I did, with plenty of food for thought.

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A Gentleman In Moscow – spend this Christmas in confinement with the Count…

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is put under house arrest in the grand Hotel Metropol, having been decreed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal. His circumstances, already greatly reduced, are to change even more drastically when he is unceremoniously turfed out of his suite and into a poky room in the hotel belfry. But the Count is a man who has always been taught that he must master his circumstances, or else be mastered by them, so he sets about making a new kind of life for himself. And it turns out, that for a resourceful man like the Count, the four walls of the hotel are full of secrets, surprising allies and enemies, and decades of unexpected adventure.

This book is not a page-turner in the expected sense of the word, although it certainly has its delicious frissons of excitement. If I could sum it up in one word, it would be charming. The Count is a wonderful narrator – witty, insightful, wise, and it is a pleasure to spend the decades of his confinement with him.

Author Amor Towles has a wonderful sense of place and a natural talent for creating authentic characters. I imagine him to be a little like the Count himself, finely attuned to the human condition, seeking joy in our quirks and surprises and understanding our foibles, despite having no time for a miserly spirit or a jobsworth.

The Times says, on the cover of this book, that it is “a book to spark joy”, and I’d say that’s apt. It is also a book that takes joy in itself. It is intelligently written but never worthy or pompous, and it brings Communist Russia to life in a very human, everyday way. In equal parts amusing and moving, A Gentleman in Moscow is the perfect Christmassy read.

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Cider with Rosie – England with that edge of gold around it

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s classic Cider With Rosie had been sitting unread on my bookshelf for years, something I always felt I ‘should have read’, and I took it down at the perfect time. I’d just tackled In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and was feeling worn out, raw and anxious. I wanted a nice book. Something that would transport me, something magical yet comforting, something that wasn’t a mountain (however worthy) to climb. Laurie Lee’s hymn to his childhood in a Cotswold village in the first quarter of the twentieth century was that book, a perfect fit.

It’s genuinely just about life in the village, no plot twists, no monumental character arcs – it moves, as village life did then, slowly, like a meandering stream. Lee is the second youngest of seven children living in a ramshackle cottage under the loving yet wildly haphazard supervision of his mother, aided by the oldest three girls, actually his half-sisters from the first marriage of his absent father.

This book made me for nostalgic for the England of my childhood years, Christmas snow, hot green summers, the fierce secrecy and alternate universe of childhood, except this is nothing like how we lived, and indeed this is not how anyone lives any more. As Lee notes, “I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life… a world of hard work; of villages like ships in the empty landscape; of white narrow roads rutted by hooves and cart-wheels, innocent of oil or petrol”. And indeed this book is as much a memoir of English village life as it is of the Lee family. It is a powerful one. Lee captures the beauty and purity of a life in harmony with nature, a world turned by the seasons – but with the unsentimentality of one who actually lived through it. Yes, there are red-cheeked children skating on glittering village ponds but there are also people dropping down dead of pneumonia every winter. The harsh realities of nature – difficulty, disease and death – are accepted and expected.

In the village, there is a genuine sense of community, for better or for worse. People know and accept the quirks of others for the most part and look out for each other. At the same time, dark secrets are hidden from outsiders. The village essentially polices itself – which is not to say that it doesn’t punish transgressors, but it is the not the high-handed punishment of an unfamiliar, unseen force. Lee says of the modern urban world “It is not crime that has increased, but its definition. The modern city, for youth, is a police-trap.”  That is certainly true, with the heavy-handedness unevenly applied to the poor and people of colour.

Lee’s world is no paradise of course. I recently became a mother to one and even with considerable assistance from my own mum and husband, it’s exhausting. The thought of managing seven alone is unthinkable, and indeed Annie Light is no whitewashed superwoman. The house is a cluttered mess and her children sometimes go hungry and ignored, but her vivaciousness, her love for life and for her children – three of whom aren’t even hers but whom she loves and cares for all the same – shine through without question. In fact, Lee’s tribute to his mother in this book is really quite beautiful. He doesn’t shy away from her faults and in this way he allows her to be a real, relatable woman, but his admiration and love for her are unquestionable. He tells us, “Nothing now that I ever see that has the edge of gold around it – the change of a season, a jewelled bird in a bush, the eyes of orchids, water in the evening, a thistle, a picture, a poem – but my pleasure pays some brief duty to her. She tried me at times to the top of my bent. But I absorbed from birth, as I now know, the whole earth through her jaunty spirit.”

Lee’s mother is not the only one to be painted in such beautiful, evocative, captivating words. He describes his entire family and a host of fascinating characters from the village with a humane wit and an innate understanding of the complexities of the human soul. And not only that. Laurie Lee’s prose is hands down the most gorgeous use of the English language I have ever read. Every sentence sings with poetry. Light dapples every one of his descriptions. He is a master of the English language, and this book is a masterpiece of a novel.

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In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts – a haunting, unforgettable study of addiction

In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With ...

I can’t for the life of me remember how Dr Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction ended up on my To Read list. This fascinating treatise on the many facets of addiction from brain chemistry to early childhood experience was an excellent read but not always an easy one. Maté is a doctor in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the non-profit Portland Hotel Society provides a “hard-to-house” population of drug addicts and those with serious mental health issues with a place to live and medical and social care. This book weaves stories and anecdotes from Maté’s practice there with scientific research, case studies and his own perspective on the issue of addiction to create something that is incredibly nuanced and complex.

Maté tackles the War on Drugs, exploring its irrefutable failures and their catastrophic consequences, both for the ostracised addicts under siege and society as a whole. He delves deep into the issue of childhood trauma, documenting both the heartbreaking personal stories he has encountered in his practice and the research about what trauma and neglect in early childhood do to the human brain and how this fosters a predisposition to addiction. He considers how modern industrial society with its dislocated families and breakdown in traditional social structures contributes to the West’s current crisis of addiction. He also reviews government and policing policy regarding addiction both in his home country of Canada and in the wider world and he takes in the spiritual and holistic framework that may offer another way of looking at drug addiction.

There is so much insight in this book for anyone interested in addiction, whether on a personal or professional level – or even if you are just a curious reader looking to better understand part of the human condition. Those reading this book primarily from a social perspective (like me) can hopefully get a lot out of the incredible wealth of scientific research Maté has broken down in a clear, accessible manner (that’s not to say I didn’t struggle on tired days with certain portions of the book, or have to reread the odd passage!). You can tell Maté is passionate about helping addicts and effecting real change and all the research he explores is filtered through that perspective – there are no dry, fusty studies for the sake of studies here. Some of the animal research he discusses, however, does make for uncomfortable reading.  

Those coming at this book from a purely medical or scientific angle may, at the other end of the scale, benefit from the very personal, human stories contained in this book – Maté tells these with great compassion yet without sentimentality. There are no great film-worthy triumphs over addiction here and, strikingly, Maté would like society to promote harm reduction policies that accept that, for some, abstinence is not a realistic option, at least for the foreseeable future. That’s actually quite radical and powerful, I think – this idea of meeting people where they genuinely are, and caring about their treatment even if the end result isn’t the outcome we would ideally like to see.

All in all, this book is a powerful and comprehensive study of addiction. I finished it with a sense of relief as some of it felt grim and unrelenting, but I respect that Maté doesn’t shy away from the reality that his patients and others like them truly face. There were moments in this book that made me feel absolute despair for the future and traumatic stories that I will struggle to forget that genuinely gave me nightmares – but I was also left with a sense that much is possible for the addicted person and the addicted brain, that there is another way forward for societies rife with addiction and the myriad issues that arise from that. There are no quick fixes, Maté is clear on that, but with greater knowledge comes greater understanding, from greater understanding comes greater compassion – both for ourselves and for others – and, from that, real, enduring change could grow.

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The Circle – descent into the Google Gulag

Dave Eggers’ The Circle came highly recommended to me by a friend, and as usual he didn’t let me down. Set in the very near future, it follows recent graduate Mae Holland as she embarks on an exciting new career at the Circle, a Google-esque tech company which looks to be very much on the verge of taking over the world.

Among my friends, I’m known to be a bit of a tin-foil-hat-wearer. I don’t post pictures of myself or my life online, I resisted the lure of Whatsapp for years because their terms of use (what do you mean you need access to all my files and data? Why?) creeped me out, and I never use my real name or date of birth to sign up to anything if I don’t absolutely have to. I am generally mystified by the prevailing culture of sharing everything with strangers, and with capitalist businesses, without any thought about who might end up with this information and what it might be put together and used for at some point in the future. I’ve never trusted people who say “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?” As if the world isn’t and hasn’t always been prone to creating regimes where being outside the norm in an endless variety of ways becomes punishable by loss of livelihood, freedom, or even your life itself. People who trust that the people in charge are always going to be benevolent, or even benign… well, read a history book… or read The Circle.

Eggers’ story of an uncomfortably familiar dystopian hell is exhaustingly familiar in places. A wish for privacy becomes uncool, then suspicious, then by degrees a crime. He has painted, in vivid colour, in accessible, entertaining prose, a totally plausible vision of the future, where we have willingly, joyfully, surrendered to giant internet monopolies with impressive technologies and terrifying scope to dominate every aspect of our existence.

At the heart of Eggers’ genius in this novel, though, is that he is not the cranky tin-foil-hat-wearing curmudgeon (see me) laughed at by owners of Apple watches. He inhabits, on this journey into the seventh circle of hell, the wide-eyed and ambitious Mae, who is totally wooed by the bright, shiny world of the Circle, and who allows us to walk a very plausible and understandable path to this horrible destiny. When government officials are railroaded into ‘going transparent’, with tiny cameras around their necks all day, every day, many applaud it as a step away from backroom deals and shady practices. When Circlers are shamed for not sharing content, reciprocating the friendly (if increasingly overwhelming) energy of others, or opening up their lives to the world, it is because they are deemed selfish. If you enjoy kayaking, why wouldn’t you want to share this with others? Help others know where the best spots are, the best currents can be found etc., etc.? What about the child with cystic fibrosis who can’t climb Mount Kilimanjaro but can feel like he has watching your video feed? Why would you deny him that experience, and so on? There were moments when even I could imagine myself being swept along with the reasoning a little. It’s certainly tiring to resist sometimes, I know that much. People make you feel like you’re mental. But inch by inch, Eggers creates a world that even the most open, tech-fanatic person surely wouldn’t want to live in, a brave new totalitarian hell. Will we try to resist at that point, even? And will it be too late?

I don’t want to go into too much detail on this book because to do so would be to deny you the chance to let it unfold before you in awful, yet glorious technicolour. And I won’t do better than the thoughtful, balanced, imaginative genius of Dave Eggers. This novel is perfectly calibrated and never heavy-handed, never preachy or anything other than gripping. But its subject matter is real and huge and unavoidable. We should all be reading The Circle, and asking ourselves what kind of world we want to end up living in…

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August – a game of two halves


Mr Literary Kitty bought me Gerard Woodward’s debut novel August because I’d enjoyed Nourishment. I liked Woodward’s style – his plain but quietly eloquent prose, and the way he wrote women so convincingly (a rarer talent than you’d think). He took the everyday and the mundane and people’s squirrelly secrets and tangled relationships and made them totally compelling.

So I had high hopes for August and I started out disappointed. The story of the Jones family and their yearly camping trip to the Welsh mountains was mundane alright, but it seemed bereft of the quirkiness that had made Nourishment such a great read. I waded through the monotonous tent-pitching details and found myself feeling cold towards Aldous and Colette Jones – a spark of interest only lighting on their creepily precocious son Janus.

About halfway through the book, things started to get good. The Jones’s idyll begins to shatter and Colette in particular comes into blindingly sharp focus as a great character. The upheaval is all the more poignant for life having been so humdrum before. Woodward’s writing, when he’s got his eye trained on human beings and not on mountains and tent pegs is still juicy and insightful and honest. 

By the end I was genuinely hooked on the Jones family and I think I may have to read on to complete the trilogy Woodward has written about them. But I can’t pretend I thought the relatively dreary first half of August was warranted even if things did perk up quite spectacularly.

Overall, I much preferred Nourishment, and it felt to me like evidence that Woodward has blossomed as a writer in the almost-decade between the two books. Or maybe this was just an indulgently slow start to what will end up being an earth-shattering trilogy. I’ll let you know when I’ve followed the history of the Jones family to its conclusion.

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Small Is Beautiful – a future less frightening


This book was bought for me in 2012 by my best friend, who is now a climate change activist in Bolivia. It’s taken me a long time to get round to reading it, probably because economics isn’t exactly my comfort zone, and despite the author’s clear, accessible style I still found it heavy-going in patches, especially if I was tired, etc. But this is, nevertheless, a brilliant read for anyone who is interested in the state of the world, democracy, capitalism or the human condition and who questions what kind of future stretches out before us as we gobble up our natural resources at a terrifyingly steep rate and refuse to discuss the elephant in the room… that a system that relies on unlimited growth in a world with finite resources is unquestionably doomed.

Stay with me if all this has you starting to feel uneasy or even despairing, because Schumacher supplies an excellent antidote to that feeling that it’s all too big or too complex or too out of reach to be changed. Yes, he poses the big metaphysical questions, but alongside this he proposes clear ways in which capitalism as we know it might be made more humane and less corrupt, and how people-power can be harnessed not just for the greater good of society as a whole, but as a way of fulfilling the individual human need to have useful, creative, satisfying employment.

He proposes a whole new way of thinking about work, the human factor and industrialised society…and when I say new, I mean new to me…this book came out in the seventies, which is as incredible as it is depressing. Environmentally speaking, we still haven’t turned this oil tanker around – not even close – we’re heading towards certain destruction at a rate of knots, yet people seem to want to believe that ‘something will come up’ despite our obvious apathy when it comes to actually making any significant changes in our lifestyles. And here again, Schumacher is brilliant. He sets out clear ways change could be made at all sorts of levels and reminds us that no matter how stacked the odds are against us, we had better try something…or accept certain destruction.

Really, I think this book should be read by everyone, especially anyone in business. If you’ve got even a passable head for numbers it shouldn’t be too taxing, and even if, like me, you haven’t, it’s well worth rereading the odd tricky passage to get to the many, many pearls of wisdom this book contains.

E.F. Schumacher proves here that a better, more humane, more sustainable way of living is not only possible theoretically, but is within our practical grasp, and is in many ways a matter of simplifying our increasingly complex world. By thinking smaller, he shows, our world can expand to become more beautiful, more harmonious and less degrading to the human condition. Surely that’s worth at least a shot.

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Naked – storytelling, mastered

Stars and Fireworks: DD2000 - Design Discourse: Chip Kidd ...

David Sedaris was just a name to me for many years, until a friend of mine offered me a free ticket to go and see him at the Barbican since her girlfriend couldn’t make it. I said sure, even though I didn’t really understand what we were going to see. It wasn’t stand-up but it was going to be funny… he would be sitting on a stage talking to us for a couple of hours… but you wouldn’t call it a talk or a lecture. Honestly, it sounded weird but I’m so glad I tend to say yes to offers of new things indiscriminately. It was one of the most entertaining evenings I’ve ever had.

I bought this book, Naked, an insane collection of his memoirs, after the show. He signed it for me and drew an imaginary naked portrait of me in it in which I have triangular tits that would put your eye out. It’s taken me ages to get around to reading the book but once I did, I messaged my friend to thank her for taking me to see him that night and to say I’d go again in a heartbeat if she ever gets more tickets.

The book, like the show, is all about Sedaris’s crazy life and the wide variety of oddballs he’s met along the way. To call him a character would be an understatement. He’s had a fascinating journey through the world, raised in a large, crazy family populated by charming alcoholics, safety-obsessed neurotics and just about everything else in between. A man who’s lived all over middle-of-nowhere America and never learned to drive is a rare thing indeed, yet Sedaris has drifted from volunteering at a harrowing mental hospital in his hometown to hitchhiking across America with his quadriplegic college roommate, finessing strangers as he went. Whether he’s hiding in his mother’s wardrobe with a scalp covered in shoe polish or attending a nudist colony, he is hilarious, and such is the authentic essence of David Sedaris that none of this ever becomes hackneyed or cliched. You never get the feeling he’s done any of it for material – he’s just one of life’s genuine originals.

He is always delightfully relatable, happy to revel for his audience in his own shortcomings as a human being. He paints painfully honest portraits of the bizarre collection of characters he meets and gives a brilliant account of his own sprawling family. He manages to make all these people seem like a dysfunctional nightmare but with warmth and love and a weirdly life-affirming lack of judgement.

In a way, Sedaris’s genius is in the way he makes such brilliant, searing, insightful judgements – about himself, his family, the people he meets and human beings as a whole. But the other part of his genius is in meeting every experience and every person with an element of passivity. He meets people where they are and lets them be who they are (as if any of us has a hope of doing anything else, in reality). This makes him a master storyteller, the kind of person you could listen to endlessly. It’s less that he’s thrown himself into all these crazy, fascinating scenarios and more that he’s always been open to letting the winds of fate blow him wherever they happen to be going. That means a hell of a lot of wild hitchhiking stories, a collection of memoirs that can fill books upon books and the ability to sit in front of an enthralled audience for hours on a stage, just talking about your life.    

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The Sympathizer – fascinating and formidable


I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s much-feted, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer for a book club, and it did exactly what I think a book-club read should do – it plunged me into a world I might not otherwise have stepped into and left me better off for it. The Guardian’s reviewer notes on the cover that the story “reminded me of how big books can be” and I know what they mean. This is the story of a communist sleeper agent/Vietnamese army captain at the end of the Vietnam War and it traverses the complete range of human emotion – from rage to love, bitter disappointment to surprising soft sweetness, ennui to shuddering terror. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “savagely funny”, which I thought, as I began it, sounded bizarre given the subject matter but it is oddly very funny, which makes the horrifying moments even more hideous. As with horrifying moments in real life they spring as if from nowhere and change the whole landscape of the book’s world in seconds.

Our narrator, a mixed-race ‘bastard’, the son of a Vietnamese teenage girl who loved him beyond measure and a French priest who never even acknowledged him, describes himself often as a “man of two faces…a man with two minds”. He is, he says, for better or for worse “able to see any issue from both sides”. It makes him an accomplished spy, an excellent narrator and a man destined to be alone in a world which always wants you to pick a side and will never trust you until you do (of course, even then, it’s no guarantee of love, happiness or loyalty).

It is a big book, a huge book and it encompasses everything humanity is – hopeful, cruel, brave, foolish, loving and unspeakably awful at times. It’s a fascinating look at power and powerlessness and what these things do to us, what they spawn and how those things then take on lives of their own. It is a unique story, brilliantly written, and it deserves all of its many prizes. It is a formidable debut novel – Viet Thanh Nguyen was clearly born to do this.

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The Secret History – the treat is in the trick

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is ostensibly about a murder at an elite New England college, but unlike your average murder mystery, we find out who did it in the opening pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to how, why and what the consequences have been or indeed will be.

Our narrator Richard Papen arrives at Hampden, Vermont, hoping to escape an drab and enervating suburban life in Plano, California, with his miserable and distant parents, and falls in with an eccentric group of students on an isolated Ancient Greek course, taught by the charming and mysterious Julian Morrow. One of these students, the larger-than-life Bunny Corcoran, is the murder victim and the others, charming twins Charles and Camilla, oddball genius Henry, and vulnerable, quirky Francis, are the murderers.

It’s a long book, but hugely readable – I flew through it in a few days; it was the ideal holiday read. Tartt is a lovely descriptive writer and she conjures the world of Hampden, which she attended as a student herself in the early eighties, beautifully. You can almost smell the woodsmoke and hear the snow crunching underfoot.

But the most engaging feature of the book for me was Tartt’s psychological insight. She manages to create a group of selfish, amoral and spoiled characters that you want to see get away with murder. I felt affectionate towards all of them in different ways.  They were so believably human even in their inhumanity – a mirror held up to the darkest corners of selfish human nature.

Despite the fact that the central crime is never a mystery to the reader, there are a number of shocks on the way to the finale that kept me gripped, and a couple of moments where I, along with Richard, realised that I’d been masterfully misdirected by Tartt and her characters. That almost never happens to me. But I was seduced in this case by the charming cloistered world Tartt creates for Richard and for the reader.

It was truly a treat to be tricked by her, and I think The Secret History should be considered a modern classic, a delightful reading experience that is not to be missed.

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