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review 2017-03-22 14:25
An inspiring book that will make you reconsider what life is about
The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters - Emily Esfahani Smith

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin Random House UK, Ebury Publishing for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily chose to read and review.

I don’t read many inspirational books so I cannot share a deep analysis of how original the book might be or where it sits in regards to the topic. The book covers a variety of subjects, and it is classed under psychology and health, philosophy and self-help, and I agree it does touch on all those.

I’m a psychiatrist and I must admit I have never studied Positive Psychology as part of my degree but this book doesn’t require an in-depth knowledge of any of the disciplines to benefit from it.

The author opens the book by introducing herself, her background, and questioning the current focus on happiness. Is happiness sufficient to lead a satisfying life? She goes on to discuss many of the studies that show that having a sense of meaning can make a big difference to the outcomes of people at a time of crisis, be it a life-threatening illness or students going through exams, and grounds the readers in the subject. She uses one of the pillars she identifies as important to creating meaning, story-telling, to hook the readers into the topic of the book. If somebody came to you and asked you to give him (her) a reason not to kill him/herself, what would you say? That’s what happened to Will Durant and what set him off asking his colleagues and trying to understand what brings meaning to people’s lives. From there, and using positive psychology, Emily Esfahani Smith, defines the four pillars that bring meaning to people’s lives: belonging, purpose, story-telling and transcendence. The author illustrates each one of these topics with individual stories that help make the points more accessible. We have a young man who was only interested in money, became a drug dealer, and when he went to prison discovered his lifestyle was literally killing him. There he changed his habits and ended up not only becoming fit but also helping others to become healthier. We have a woman who loves animals and finds her purpose in looking after the animals in the zoo, ensuring their lives can be interesting there too. I learned about dream directors who help young people find purpose and meaning; I read about projects that help people in the final stages of life to find a purpose, other projects that help individuals tell their stories and record their experiences, groups that bring people who’ve lost somebody together… The author achieves this and more, all the while providing sources for her findings and reminders of how the issues discussed relate to philosophers and historical figures past and current. We might discover belonging by joining a society that enacts battles or find transcendence walking in nature or attending a special service at church. Ultimately, this is not a prescriptive book, and the process of discovery of meaning is an individual one.

I loved the stories, which go from individual experiences to projects that have grown and become important to many people, and the theoretical reflections that underpin the concepts, which are clearly explained and will also encourage readers new to the topic to explore further. The author succeeds in preserving the unique voices of the people whose experiences she shares and her own writing is seamlessly and beautifully achieved.  The book made me think and rethink life and its priorities and I suspect it will have a similar effect on many people.

A book on an important topic, written in an easily-accessible manner, illuminating and inspiring. Although I read it quickly for the review, this is a book that can be savoured and returned to as needed, and it will provide new discoveries and insights with every new reading.

A final note: Although the book appears quite long, the notes at the end occupy a 33% of the e-book (although they are easily accessible) and it does not feel like a long read.


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review 2016-11-07 23:12
Stellaluna - Janell Cannon

Stellaluna is a wonderful story about a young bat that gets separated from it's mother and eventually finds her way back home. While Stellaluna is lost, she is being raised by birds who teach her how to sit upright during the day, even though she is nocturnal and not like them. Stellaluna, however finds her way back home. Stellaluna maintains a strong relationship with the birds even though she is very different from them. This book teaches the importance of family connections and individuality. This would be a wonderful book to do with a comprehension activity and maybe even sequencing within a third grade classroom. 

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review 2016-11-02 01:29
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend - Dan Santat

This is my favorite children's book of all time. This book is about an imaginary friend that just wants to be imagined by a human. It's all about acceptance and belonging. A fun activity for students to do with this book would be to create an imaginary friend using playdough. After the students create their imaginary friend, they can write a short story on what they would do together. This could be done in a third grade classroom. 

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review 2016-08-20 23:06
Less Dark than Expected.
Staged (Belonging) - Kim Fielding

For possibly the first time ever I’m not entirely sure whether or not this review contains (a)spoiler(s). Proceed with caution.


First things first. While this is the third book in a series it can easily be read as a stand-alone. In fact at no point while reading this story did I feel I was missing information or wished for more background on either the characters or the world the story is set in. While Staged certainly made me curious about those earlier books, I don’t think there’s any need to read them first…unless you want to of course.


Staged. *sigh* The story is told from Sky Blue’s perspective and I think Kim Fielding did an amazing job getting into the head space of a man who was born a slave, raised a slave and destined to always be a slave. His descriptions of his life were devastating. It wasn’t just the fact that he was treated without any consideration, at best, and with cruel disregard at worst, although that was heartbreaking enough. What really got to me was that he basically lived a life without any possibility of it ever getting better. It wasn’t so much that he lived without hope, because he still wished for an owner who wouldn’t be cruel, who wouldn’t hurt or mistreat him, but as hopes go, that is scraping the barrel. What really got to me was his resignation and the fact that it made perfect sense. When being a slave is all you’ve ever known, when you’ve been told so often that you are less, that you don’t feel like normal—free—people do, that you almost believe it, resignation is probably the only way to survive.


Given that context it makes perfect sense for Sky to be utterly confused when his new Master, Morgan Wallace (or is it Mackenzie Webster?) treats him with kindness, looks after him, buys him nice clothes, and cooks him great food. Sky has never encountered this before. Nobody has ever cared about his comfort or his feelings, and he has no idea how to deal with someone who appears to do just that. Especially when that same person is also the man who hands him over to strangers to be hurt and abused in the most horrific ways, only to tenderly nurse him back to health afterwards.


Poor Sky is confused and doesn’t know what to think. For me the one issue I had with this book was that I didn’t share Sky’s confusion and fear about his new Master. As early as the third chapter Wallace has told Sky that he’s sorry about what he will have to put him through, but that he doesn’t have a choice. While Sky doesn’t have the frame of reference to either understand or fully believe that statement, for me as a reader, that was the moment the story lost some of its tension and became less dark, despite the fact that the horrendous abuse scenes were still to come.


This is of course a very personal opinion and others may well disagree with me, but I would have preferred it if I’d been kept guessing about Wallace, his motives, and his feelings towards Sky. While the fact that I, as the spectator, didn’t worry about Wallace as much as Sky did, was a wonderful way to illustrate how Sky’s slave mind worked, it did, for me, make the story less edgy than I thought it would be.


Other than that one point, this book was wonderful. The world it describes is ours, except that slavery is an almost worldwide routine, and that makes the story that much more credible and scary; it’s all too easy to believe in this version of the world. I completely and utterly fell for Sky and cheered him on for every step of his long, difficult, painful, and confusing journey, and rejoiced when he finally found his own power.


I’m impressed that the author managed to give me a clear idea about who Webster was and what he felt without ever getting into his head. We only see him from Sky’s perspective and yet we see Webster’s struggle clearer than Sky can. That is fabulous writing.


One word of warning. There are a few very ugly scenes in this book. While they are ‘only’ scenes and not the tone of the book, they will without a doubt shock some readers. Having said that, comparatively speaking, those dark scenes make up only a small part of the story. Most of this book tells the story of two men from different worlds, with no idea about the other person’s reality, learning about each other and in the process about themselves.


Overall this was a very good, very well written and totally engrossing book. I’m very glad I had four consecutive hours of almost uninterrupted reading time because I don’t think I would have been able to put the book down for whatever reason. While the book wasn’t quite as dark as I expected it to be, and I would have preferred to have been kept guessing about Webster a while longer, I still highly recommend this as a fabulous read.



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review 2016-07-18 13:15
Extremely one sided and opinionated based on his personal political predilection!
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging - Sebastian Junger
  • Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger, author and narrator
    I must admit that I thought this book was going to be about our men and women in the armed forces who have suffered from PTSD, and about other causes of that particular disability that has inhibited the normal function of so many with this affliction, and yet there is no adequate explanation, diagnosis or treatment. I hoped to learn about how they could be helped. Instead of that, I found a book that talked more about their, and our, basic inability to fit into a communal type society in which we all had a job and a purpose in a productive lifestyle. The theory sounds eerily like a treatise on Socialism.
    The author decried our way of life as negatively impacting the environment and our relationships and interactions with others because we have created a society of people who consistently take more than their fair share and give less than he deems necessary to create a more egalitarian society for all. He minimized the trauma that is PTSD and glorified the trauma, tragedies and catastrophes that brought it on, by insisting it was a short term "illness". In early societies, he insists that extreme trauma and tragedy actually caused euphoria since it engendered the community to come together in selfless ways, rather than selfish ways which is what we are experiencing in the modern world. Essentially, he blamed modernity for acknowledging the problem that it inherently caused because of our own behavior.
    When the book begins, Junger discusses the American Indian, but first he issued a disclaimer concerning his lack of footnotes and then discussed his controversial use of certain terms, one of which is American Indian vs. Native American. Then he sang their praises while basically trashing what he believes is our own selfish way of life. We, the author notes, have lost our sense of community, of sharing, of belonging. This, he eventually concludes, citing chapter and verse of instances I have never heard of, that it is our isolation and greed that are some of the reasons for our mental health issues. We have forgotten how to share. We have forgotten how to care. He judges and makes moral equivalents that make no sense simply because he wants to, in order to prove his point, often comparing apples to oranges, and then claiming his examples prove his point without adequately referencing his conclusions. It seemed as if he decided what he wanted to prove and simply chose only examples that supported his viewpoint.
    He used Beau Bergdahl as an example of our habit of rushing into making conclusions and often drawing false conclusions. He admitted he was a deserter who left his post and caused the deaths of his fellow soldiers, who went to search for him, but he thought it was wrong to judge him more harshly than those who caused the collapse of the financial market which he blamed on banks and other institutions. He believes the consequences from the economic debacle led to far greater casualties. He failed to note the fact that the government regulations were deeply at fault, and if bankers should be punished, so should those in the government, like Democrat Barney Frank, who insisted on regulations which encouraged the sub-prime mortgages that were the underlying cause of the failures.
    Junger’s progressive agenda becomes more and more apparent as he writes. His political views and ideology guide him rather than the facts, and his political leanings were obvious from word one. He used many single-minded, one-sided opinions to reach conclusions he preferred, and he found obscure bits and pieces of personal experiences or ideas which backed him up, but often defied general knowledge and the real personal experience of soldiers and others who had experienced war and lived through monumental disasters.
    He lost me when he decided that chaos and extreme danger often engendered euphoria! He actually cited experiences like 9/11, to prove his point, but my own personal experience with family contradicted his conclusions. Perhaps those who were not directly in the actual tragedy of 9/11, were able to be euphoric, but those affected were not! PTSD is a serious problem, once referred to as shell-shocked and battle fatigue. It has been around a long time and is not a newly discovered dysfunction. In some, it may be short term as Junger believes, and that is lucky for those so minimally affected. In others, there is often a trigger which provokes a response that had remained hidden or submerged until that catalyst., like a memory, a sound, or a conversation, caused the disability to reemerge. There may be some that take advantage of the disability as some do in all areas of life, historically, but for many the experience of PTSD is disabling through no fault of their own for long periods of time. Those afflicted are not trying to take from society unfairly, as those who knowingly took loans they could not repay, or as Bergdahl did when he knowingly set out to betray his fellow soldiers. Even the bankers did not knowingly set out to destroy the economy; they followed the current banking requirements. Yet the author makes no mention of their culpability.
    I think Junger may have been right about the failure of society, in that society does use people for its own ends and does take advantage of them for selfish reasons, but usually it is for the benefit of the larger society. When real harm is caused there are usually appropriate actions taken to correct them and alter the course. Junger seems to be espousing communal living, perhaps as I mentioned earlier, Socialism. I hope he will look further into the anecdotes out there that prove that his idea of a "collective" type of society fails as it expands, and then rethink his own Pollyanna approach to a societal problem which is, in his unfortunate view, the "ugly, selfish American"! He also seems to be trying to prove that bravery is a negative behavior, but depression can serve as a positive influence. I simply could not get my head around that premise.
    I was very disappointed in the obvious political agenda this book seemed intent on presenting during our current contentious political environment. He seemed to want to encourage a world in which everyone and everything is equal, without recognizing that when the ambition to succeed declines, the amount of money to be redistributed declines, and everyone grows poorer together. The ultimate end result of economic equality turns out to be simply that everyone is poor rather than everyone is uplifted!
    Disclaimer: This represents my own opinions from my own experience in much the same way as the author and his sources represent theirs. We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts, so remarked Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
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