Saturday, 22 November 2014

Rethinking Positive Thinking

Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen

Finally!  A book about optimism and positive thinking that is based on science.  And the result is surprising.  

We have been told for decades that positive thinking is a good thing, every time we have a negative thought we should reframe it in a positive way, and that being optimistic is healthy.

Turns out this is all wrong.  People who regularly indulge in positive self talk and fantasies are less productive than people who are more realistic.  Visualising yourself living a life of luxury, running a successful business, being fit,slim and healthy, etc. means you are far less likely to achieve those goals.  

In this book Oettingen details the research she has undertaken over more than thirty years, in both Germany and the USA, into the effects of positive visualisation and fantasies.  Turns out these activities are excellent for lowering stress, reducing blood pressure and increasing one's ability to wait patiently or to endure less than ideal circumstances.  They are so good, in fact, at calming you down that they actually reduce the energy, motivation, will and desire to take action to achieve one's goals.  Helpful if you are stuck in a situation you have absolutely no control over, like people living in East German before the Berlin wall came down, but not much help for anyone that actually wants to get something done.

Thankfully Oettingen's research did not stop there and she looked at what actually did work in helping people to achieve their goals and take action.  Again the result was a surprise.  It turns out that mentally rehearsing everything going right won't help but visualising all the obstacles and things that can go wrong will.  When her study participants fantasised about achieving a cherished goal and then fantasised about the obstacles one of two things happened.  Either the dreamer decided their goal was unachievable, the obstacles insurmountable and the outcome not worth the effort and they stopped wasting their time on the goal or they decided the opposite and almost immediately took action to make their dream a reality.

Like all good psychology experiments the results seem like common-sense with hindsight but we are so used to the self-help community peddling the notion that we can 'think and grow rich' or that the abundant universe will answer our prayers that this common-sense notion seems quite radical.

Oettingen takes us one step further on this journey towards action by looking at the most effective way to plan for our success and this is through using an 'if... then' formula.  Unlike most planning which is vague and ineffectual an 'if... then' formula provides us with a specific action to take and a specific time or situation to take it in.  This is the kind of planning that builds habits and helps us to avoid temptation.  If our goal is to get fit then the vague idea to 'do more exercise' becomes a concrete plan 'if it is 6pm then I will go to the gym'.

Although this is a scientific book based on solid scientific research, Oettingen does provide an easy to use formula for making the most of her research.  To provide the best template for the kind of thinking required to start taking action, she came up with the acronym WOOP.  There are even two apps available - one for school students and one for adults - which provide this template for you.

WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.  The idea is that you spend some time visualising your wish, vividly picture the outcome you want and how good it will feel to achieve that goal, then picture the obstacle(s) standing in your way. At this point you will probably realise whether your wish is achievable or not.  Allowing yourself to really feel the benefit of the desire will help you to decide how much you really do want it.  By then focusing on the obstacles in your way your creative mind will come up with all sorts of solutions and as you dig deeper even get to the bottom of the 'real' obstacle which will inevitably be some behaviour of your own which you can change.  At this point the 'if... then' plan will be easy to construct.  It is essential that the process is done in this order.  Over many experiments, Oettingen discovered that visualising the obstacle before the outcome led to no increase in action.  

Obviously better results were achieved by subjects who used the WOOP formula regularly but even those who only used it once found themselves subconsciously moving closer towards their goals.

Overall this was a fantastic book with real detail and depth, solid scientific experiments and practical steps to take.  There was no 'secret' involved, no abundant universe or 'higher power' just harnessing the power of your own mind to get you what you want.  Brilliant. 

2 Month Update

So far I have read 11 non-fiction books and 9 fiction books (although 4 of those are from the same series).

I am averaging 10 books a month and some of the non-fictions have been whoppers (Cornelius Owen I'm looking at you!).

At this rate I will have finished the 80 book challenge by August and that's not taking into account that my rate will go up whenever there is a school holiday and I am currently studying for the Primal Blueprint Expert Certificate which is taking up most of my non-fiction reading time.

Might have to make the challenge 120 books instead of 80!!

Two for the price of one...

Quick review of two more books by Philip Reeve - the last two in the Mortal Engines series.

I'm actually counting all four of these books as one YA book in my challenge.  You wouldn't want to read these two if you hadn't read Mortal Engines and Predator's Gold.

Infernal Devices by Philip Reeve

This book catches up with Tom and Hester 15 years after Predator's Gold.  The main protagonist this time is their daughter Wren who has inherited her mother (and grandfather's) love of action and adventure and will do anything to escape their safe but dull existence on the now stationary Anchorage.

The war between the cities and the Anti-Tractionist League still rages and Wren's actions hurl herself, plus Tom and Hester once again, into the midst of the conflict.

I really enjoyed this book, more so than Predator's Gold.  Hester's true warlike personality is revealed although we are still sympathetic towards her but Wren is a cleverly written composition of the opposing traits that Tom and Hester exemplify.  She is as brave, fearless and mercenary as her mother and also as thoughtful, empathetic, caring and morally robust as her father.  As such she makes for a fantastic heroine and role model for teenage girls; much better then the two extremes of Hester and Freya fighting over Tom in the previous book.

A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve

The final book in the series which brings the story to a complete and satisfying conclusion, tying up all the loose ends of all the different characters.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Confessions of a Conjuror by Derren Brown

Confessions of a Conjuror by Derren Brown

I really loved this although it is a very unusual autobiography.  The whole book spans the performance of one card trick to three customers in a swanky restaurant which happened very early in Brown's career.  As Brown describes the trick, and the response to each element of it from his clients (or participants), he wanders off into reminiscences of his childhood or describes in details some minutae of his life now.  Occasionally there is too much information, for example on some of his bathroom habits (!) however it is a fascinating insight into Brown as a person and his understanding of human nature.

I quite enjoy Deren Brown's 'magic' shows but I am much more fascinated by his psychology experiments and although this book ostensibly deals with magic it also explores that side of his work.  I particularly like how he thoroughly debunks spiritualism, clairvoyancy and mediums, etc and I like his attitude towards religion and atheism.

This book is occasionally a little pretentious and Brown's vocabulary deliberately ostentatious - a bit like him.  I actually found his use of over-blown language made the book a rich and satisfying experience and it was short enough not to be too much.  He is clearly well-off and doesn't mind name-dropping or mentioning how much money he has spent on things - but at the same time he is self-mocking and aware of his own affectations.

Amongst the ephemera there were some gems of advice, the best one being that if you truly want to be successful and 'win friends and influence people' then just be kind.

A great Sunday afternoon read.

Predator's Gold by Philip Reeve

Predator's Gold by Philip Reeve

Short post this one. I've finished book 2 in the Mortal Engines series. This follows the further adventures of Tom and Hester and introduces some new characters and new places.  Another quick and easy read which was imaginative and engaging.  Good for younger teens.  Can't say much more about it without revealing spoilers but I enjoyed it although not quite as much as the first one.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Having finished David Copperfield in the morning I then started Mortal Engines because my husband has been hooked on the series.  He told me I would finish it in the day and he was right!  I couldn't put it down.

Whereas David Copperfield lacked plot this teen fiction novel was stuffed full of it.  At first glance it seems to be yet another teenage dystopian science fiction series but it was written in 2001 so isn't just jumping on the Hunger Games bandwagon.

The novel is set in a post apocalypse future where cities have been built (or re-built) on to wheels and engines so that they can move about; they survive by capturing and devouring each other in a warped survival of the fittest called Municipal Darwinism.  As with so many of these books, society is divided up into classes with a strict hierarchy and the main protagonist is a young orphaned boy called Tom who is near the bottom of the social pile as a Third Class Apprentice.  As well as a vertical hierarchy, society is also divided horizontally into four supposedly equal guilds although the novel mainly focuses on the Engineers who appear to have the most power and the guild Tom belongs to which is the Historians.

Like many novels of this type the story centres around the way in which greedy power hungry adults find and use the technology which caused the apocalypse in the first place and the teenagers struggles to prevent them. However, Mortal Engines rises above so many of these teen novels and is pacy, well-written and actually quite profound.

Although Tom is the main protagonist his story is intertwined with that of Hester and echoed by the story of Katherine who is helped by Pod.  Between them the boys and girls display a range of characteristics and are certainly not gender stereotyped; all four of them are brave, clever, resourceful and moral.

It is difficult to say much more about this novel without revealing any spoilers but what I really liked about it was that, although it is the first novel in a series, it does actually reach a satisfying conclusion.  I want to read the rest of the series but I don't feel I have to to find out what is going on.

Overall, a wonderful book which I would recommend to any teenager (and adult!) and might be especially good for reluctant boys.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Finally finished David Copeprfield yesterday morning so that's the first of my classics ticked off.  I'm a big fan of Dickens so it is quite surprising that I'd never read David Copperfield before.  Given that it was Dickens own favourite and I know many other peoples' favourite I didn't enjoy it that much.  

There was certainly plenty to enjoy and some characters such as Micawber and Uriah Heap are brought to life beautifully.  One of the things that struck me, as it always does when I read Dickens, was the absolutely cruelty of Victorian society.  They were obssessed with manners and propriety but had a complete lack of basic humanity towards others.  I think that this portrayal of Victorian society was Dickens' finest achievement and the first steps towards breaking down that horrendous class system which continued with the First World War but which, unfortunately as our present government demonstrates, has not yet disappeared.  Child abuse, the practice of marrying very young girls off to much older men, domestic violence especially of the emotional and psychological kind, were commonplace and in fact normal until Dickens began to shine his light on them and are all illustrated in this novel.

With the exception of the fabulous Betsy Trotwood and to some extent Peggotty and Emma Micawber, most of the women in this novel are fairly weak and insipid. Dickens does go some way to explaining how they are made that way by the men in their lives and the constraints of society, though.  The main reason I didn't enjoy this as much as say, Great Expectations or my personal favourite The Tale of Two Cities or even Oliver Twist, is that as it is set out as an autobiography it lacks an overarching plot. A few of the events also seemed rather convenient for all involved.

I can see why people love it.  There were some great character descriptions and vivid portrayals of Victorian society and institutions such as the debtor's prison, school and the shipping community at Yarmouth but I prefer a stronger storyline.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman

Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman

On the fiction front I've been reading David Copperfield.  No-one can accuse me of choosing short, easy books for this challenge!  Still, it is one of the few Dickens' novels I've not read before and I am enjoying it although it feels slow going - I'm about three quarters of the way through, so expect a review next week (not that Dickens needs a review from me but there you go).

The non-fiction book I finished last week though, was this one: Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman.  It was recommended by Mark Sisson of Mark's Daily Apple which is enough of an endorsement for me to buy a book anyway but this one had particular resonance.  As many people know I have had all sorts of pelvic issues for quite some time (see my review of Teach Us To Sit Still) and am currently going through various medical tests to find out why I have such bad pain in my lower back and right hip bone (not joint).  I am waiting to go back to the consultant for the results of an MRI scan.  

Since September, when I made a few changes to my lifestyle through following The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod (review of that to come soon), I have had a dramatic improvement in my ability to stand for long periods of time without pain - pretty essential stuff for a teacher!  I am convinced that the biggest reason for the improvement is strictly following the Primal Blueprint lifestyle protocol.  It is something I have done on and off for six years and every time I do it properly the results are amazing.  In fact with the extra time and energy I've found from this I've started to take the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course with the intention of setting up a website and classes delivering primal wellbeing coaching.  

So, where does this book come in?  I am not an natural exerciser.  It's pretty obvious that my idea of fun is curling up on a sofa with a good book. But pain is a fairly effective motivator and I am fascinated by the whole concept of giving our bodies what evolution has programmed it to expect.  (I feel that about babies too, so I might do a review of The Continuum Concept on here soon.)  There are a few evolutionary inspired exercise books out there such as Paleo Fitness, and Mark Sissan has the  big four Primal Movements as part of the Primal Blueprint, but they all take the focus of introducing the movement that your body should expect into your everyday life - definitely necessary and worthwhile but not completely addressing the situation I was in. 

Katy Bowman is a biomechanist so every principle in the book is firmly underpinned by thorough scientifc knowledge and understanding.  The premise of this book is, like that of other evolutionary fitness books, that our bodies as hunter-gatherers expect certain amounts and kinds of movement everyday and that our modern sedentary lifestyles simply do not provide that movement.  Other primal, paleo, evolutionary fitness books provide ideas for the necessary exercises that we can undertake to replicate some of those movements in a regular way and these are all brilliant. For example, I would love to attend a MovNat workshop and get a real hunter-gatherer style workout  but, apart from the fact that they are ridiculously expensive, I also know that in my current state of fitness I could not do one.  I realise now that twenty-odd years ago when I used to spend every spare moment caving, climbing or hill-walking I got that workout without thinking about it or 'doing exercise' and I would love to get back to that physical state and level of natural activity. 

Where this book differs from those others is that Katy takes our bodies as they are now and explores how they deviate from that evolutionary expectation.  It is not just that we do not get any where near enough movement in our lives now - even people who participate in sports and exercise programmes spend a considerable amount of the day sitting or standing still - but that there are some movements that we over-do.  For instance, our bodies are not designed to walk up evenly spaced steps or along perfectly flat, even ground.  We encase our feet in rigid shoes which do not allow our feet to engage with the terrain, we spend long periods of time sitting on chairs which force our spines into particular shapes when we were 'designed' to squat and we prop our heads up on pillows causing our necks to spend the whole 7-8 hours in one position instead of lying on varying surfaces at different heights and angles.

So Katy has provided some exercises which are designed, not to give us a primal workout, but to re-align those parts of the body which we are mis-using, under-using, over-using and deforming by our repetitive actions and sedentary lifestyle. The exercises are deceptive, the movements involved look miniscule, the results are amazing.

Now, I enjoyed this book for all the theory and the science and the bio-mechanics, some people might not be interested in that side of things.  However, I struggled with following the exercises in the book and interpreting the printed pictures.  They are good, and Katy's descriptions are brilliant but it is always hard to read and exercise at the same time and also to judge a movement from a static picture.  But, as this was an e-book, so of course there were links to Katy's website: Katy Says where she, not only publishes a blog but also has various programmes available to download and buy the video tutorials.  I believe she also has a YouTube channel which is worth checking out.  The ideas explained in the book made such sense to me that I tried the trial 'Alignment Snack' as they are called, and I actually enjoyed it.  Since then I have downloaded 4 more 'snacks' at a cost of $5 each which works out at just over £3. I have been doing one of these snacks every morning for the past week and a half and they are unbelievable.  I now realise that I walk using my lower back, knees and thighs instead of my lateral hip muscles (the muscles running over the hips at the side of the legs) and my hamstrings.  I'm really focusing on strengthening and stretching these under-used muscles and taking the strain off my lower back which has been trying to do a job it was not designed for.  In only a week and a half I have seen a dramatic improvement and have even ventured as far as adding a 7 minute primal exercise workout to my morning routine.  If this continues, which I'm sure it will, then I will fly up Mount Ararat in August!

So, if you are interested in a primal lifestyle, in getting fit, or in dealing with chronic joint or muscle pain, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book. When I go back to the hospital for my results, I'll have to admit that I don't even have a problem any more. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks

Teach Us To Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks

As you probably have realised by now, I follow the Miracle Morning routine from the book of that name by Hal Elrod.  The first three elements of that routine are Silence; Affirmations and Visualisation.  Now I am a something of a sceptic, atheist, non-believer in the power of the Universe who thinks that The Secret is a scam.  However, I am also a big fan of that other sceptic, atheist Derren Brown, so I am a huge believer in the power of the mind.  Unfortunately I have great trouble doing nothing so the SAV part of my morning routine was suffering because I just want to get it out of the way to get on to the fun stuff of reading and writing.  I asked the Miracle Morning facebook community if they could recommend any books on mediation, visualisation etc for sceptics.  Many people in the Miracle Morning community are religious or spiritual people so a lot of the books they often recommend include some spiritual element which immediately puts me off.  However, my request yielded this result: Teach Us To Sit Still by Nick Parks.  So, I gave it a go. (Gotta love Kindle 1-click!)

Nick Parks is a well-established, Booker prize nominated fiction author, although I've never read any of his other books (will be adding them to my list now though!).  A few years ago he developed what appeared to be a prostrate condition and this book essentially describes, in graphic detail, his search for a cure or at least some relief from his pevic pain.  The first few chapters are quite painful reading. He endures a battery of invasive, excruciating and often embarrassing tests and procedures in an attempt to discover the source of his symptoms.  However, once they were all complete, and every usual diagnosis exhausted he was left with the option of an operation to cut one of the sphincters in his urethra (!) which may or may not have any effect, or to live with it.  Neither of those options particularly appeals to him.  The risks associated with the operation were such that it could well end up making his sympoms worse and living with it meant putting up with such severe pain that he couldn't sit down and had to go to the bathroom five or six times a night.

As he investigated his condition, he discovered in old research literature, that there was a tendency for this condition to affect men who were "restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individuals" (p.31).  The more he dug into the research the more he found other examples throughout history of men who might have suffered something similar and he began his quest for an answer.

The book is clearly the product of a talented writer.  As he searches for his possible cure, Parks explores the lives and works of Hardy, Velasquez, Bernhard, Gandhi and Hemingway amongst others.  He runs, tries herbal remedies, immerses himself in extreme kayaking and even visits an Ayurvedic doctor in India.  As well as being a writer Parks, who lives in Italy, also teaches translation at an Italian university and he vividly recounts his encounters with students.  As an autobiography, even without the medical quest, this is a fascinating autobiography.

Then Parks comes across an obscure American book called, intriguingly, A Headache in the Pelvis by David Wise. By this time Parks has exhausted conventional medicine which declares that, apart from his symptoms, there is nothing wrong with him.  By now he is willing to try anything.  The Wise book suggests that a myriad of pelvic pain symptoms, of which Parks' fit quite neatly, are in fact caused by tension in the pelvic floor muscles.  Given how much research Parks has done up to this point it is surprising that this is the first time that he has come across any mention of pelvic floor muscles.  Parks is intrigued.  Unfortunately much of the treatment Wise recommends involves visiting his clinic in America and undergoing an intensive course of (expensive) treatment which Parks is not in a position to do.  However, Wise also recommends something called Paradoxical Relaxation, which turns out to be a form of meditation.  Although, again, Wise recommends that this is not something to be undertaken on your own, he does describe the process, so Parks, despite his scepticism, decides he has nothing to lose and begins his own programme of daily hour long mediation sessions.

At first, Parks finds this incredibly difficult.  He has acknowledged that he is a 'restless, worrisome, dissatisfied individual' and as a writer he finds it very difficult to switch off the words in his head.  But, all credit to him, he persists and, for the first time in two years, starts to get some relief from his symptoms.  He takes an important step in acknowledging that his symptoms are not hypochondria or 'made-up' but that they are pschosomatic in the sense that they are caused by they way he tenses when stressed which has in itself become habitual. The Paradoxical Relaxation is by no means a miracle cure but it provides sufficient relief for Parks to start to take meditation seriously.  He sees benefits in other areas of his life and decides to push the concept even further by going on a Vipassan mediation retreat.

Parks description of the retreat, and a second longer one he attends, is fascinating.  Despite his continued success with the relaxation he still has an atheist, sceptic attitude towards Buddhist philosophy.  But he persists, follows the instructions, carries out the activities (or non-activities).  We are treated to the inner war going on between the side of him willing to give it a go and the side that believes it is all arrant nonsense. This battle is both entertaining to the reader, but also enlightening, especially to me with my own conflict on the benefits of Silence, Affirmations and Visualisations.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that Parks is now a meditation afficianado and largely pain and symptom free without having to have had the horrendous operation.  I haven't yet embraced the silence fully, but as a sceptic with a history of pelvic pain and disorders, Parks has certainly made me reconsider the benefits of meditation.  More importantly he has made me realise that even though so many proponents of the practice like to 'dress it up' with a spiritual dimension, the techniques themselves are all about the body and the mind working together and attempting to break down that 'extraordinary mismatch between the creatures we are and the way we live' (p.2). So, I don't do spiritual but I definitely do Primal. When I look on these techniques as ways to reconnect with my evolutionary health and well-being then the conflict with my rational mind and my resistance to them disappears.

I'm expecting my next few reviews to have a primal focus as today I am signing up to do the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

18 Minutes by Peter Bregman

18 Minutes

Another book on reaching your goals and developing good habits that was cheap on Kindle.  A good introduction to the topic but didn't really say anything new.  The 18 minutes of the title are:
5 minutes scheduling your to-do list into your calendar every morning; setting an alarm to go off every hour throughout the day and spending one minute re-focusing and reviewing whether what you are doing is moving you forward; and then 5 minutes at the end of the day in an evening ritual which involves asking yourself three question - how did the day go?; what did I learn?; who did I interact with?

The basic premise of the book can be boiled down to the following:

  • Vision - know what you want to do, cultivate your passion or one thing
  • Plan - decide when and where you are going to do things
  • Focus - avoid distractions
  • Rituals - set up systems to help you get things done
  • Motion - getting started is the hardest part so start small
  • Environment - manipulate your daily cues to help you develop habits
  • Review - deliberate feedback is essential to success.
Overall a useful book which reinforces the messages of success. 

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Maze Runner

This was a great little Young Adult book which I know has been made into a great film although I haven't seen it yet.  I read this in a day, in between housework and marking, and it was brilliant for escaping.

There seems to be a trend for dystopian novels for YA at the moment and when you look at the news it's hardly surprising that teenagers are enjoying novels where they are to be the saviours of a messed up world. This is a cross between all of them: Hunger Games, Divergent, Millenium 14.  It is written in the first person by a boy named Thomas who is possibly about 15, although he doesn't know as his memory has been wiped.  He has been 'dumped' into a world of only teenage boys (imagine the smell!) who have sorted themselves into factions or guilds.  None of them have any memory of where they came from or how they got there.

Outside their camp is the maze which is patrolled by strange half biological half mechanical creatures.  A group of boys called runners go out everyday in an attempt to find a way through the maze and hopefully find the exit. If any of them get 'stung' by the creatures, they must receive a serum which prevents them from dying.  The serum itself though, has the side-effect of restoring some memories - however if they try to tell anyone else these memories they end up trying to strangle themselves.  A few boys who have experienced this 'changing' recognise Thomas and appear to have a deep loathing for him.

A week after Thomas arrives a girl is sent.  She is the only girl that has ever appeared in the camp and she is in a coma. Thomas feels he knows this girl, although he doesn't know how and it soon becomes apparent that they have a telepathic connection.

The book was pacey and exciting with sufficient mystery and tension to be a page-turner. It didn't engage me as much as Divergent, possibly because it was so boy-centric.  My only grumble with it, and this is a feature of pretty much all these types of books at the moment, is that it doesn't really finish.  The resolution is incomplete and so you are forced to read the second book (and presumably the third) to find out what is going on - good marketing strategy of course.  I have a feeling that there will be more girls in subsequent books, hopefully not just there to be rescued!

I'm looking forward to seeing the film now, and I'll hold off with the rest of the trilogy until after I've seen the film.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

It's Complicated by Danah Boyd

This morning during my non-fiction reading session I finished It's Complicated by Danah Boyd.
 Books are like buses, three all arrive at once.

I enjoyed this book but I'm sure it is of very little interest to anyone who does not work with teenagers using digital media literacy.

The book is basically a research dissertation in whch the author interviewed a considerable number of American teenagers about their use of social media.  Some of the chapters were particularly American, such as the chapter on race and gangs, so didn't really relate to my understanding of networked teens.  However, quite a few chapters were useful and provided some compelling insight into teens' behaviour online.

The overarching conclusion was that to today's teens social media is a public space like the mall or the park.  It is the place to go to meet people, to take risks, to assert independence from adults and to cultivate and develop an identity.  Adults, trying their best to protect teens from online predators and potential future embarrassment, try to regulate and monitor teens online activities, yet the teens themselves will always find a way to bypass these protective measures.

Are teens more at risk online then they were at the park? Are teens more cruel and more likely to bully online than in the school corridors?  Boyd's conclusion was 'not really' although she acknowledges that there will always be some teens who are more at risk than others. She also believes that many of the behaviours we see as risky and potentially embarrassing may simply become rites of passage that this generation consider normal and don't take too much notice of.  Time will tell if she is right or not - in the meantime I will continue to teach about online safety and the digital footprint.  What use the teens make of that information is then up to them.

The chapter which was the most interesting to me was the once considering whether today's youth are, in fact, digital natives.  Boyd concluded that the term was misleading and that kids today, even those born since 1999, who have never known a time without the internet, still need teaching how to understand digital media.  In fact, she believes becoming digitally literate is one of the most important skills they will need (good - keeps me in a job!).  They are not born knowing what to do with a computer and many of them still have limited access to online connectivity.  More important, though, is understanding how the content they see and read and watch online is mediated, how it is biased, how it serves the interests of a few interested in making money.  In other words interpreting digital media is just as complicated, just as necesary and just as compelling as the media has ever been.  Power is still in the hands of the media producers and now that anyone can be a media producer understanding their messages is vitally important if teens are not to be at the mercy of that power.

Overall, a great book for me but unlikely to be much fun for anyone else.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Whilst I was reading The Weft and The Warp on my iPhone, I needed a paperback to read in the bath (as all my students know I am obssessed with not letting a drop of water near any Apple device - ever since I dropped my 80gb iPod Classic in the washing-up bowl).

I finished that last night too. First published in 1955, my copy is tatty old one which belonged to my dad.  I have read it before, but when I was still at school so I couldn't remember much more than the opening with Sophie and her six toed footprint on the wet rock.

John Wyndham is famous for science-fiction, most notably The Day of the Triffids which is one of my all time favourites. The Chrysalids is an interesting premise although the story is not as exciting as Triffids.  It is set in a post-apocolyptical world in which genetic disorders are rife.  The apocolyptical event is not made clear, the characters in the book call it the Tribulation and believe it was sent from God.  However, the genetic damage it has caused suggests some kind of nuclear catastrophe.

Society, and in particular the main protagonist David's father, believe that genetic mutation must be eradicated and that only those made in the image of God should be allowed to live.  The image of God is, of course, the one prescribed by them and as the novel progresses we see that it can be a fairly loosely interpreted if an economic advantage is gained, for instance when David's uncle buys some giant workhorses.

In the novel, David, his cousin Rosalind and several other young people discover they have the gift of telepathy and can converse with each other in thought-pictures over reasonably long distances.  Then David's mother has another daughter who appears to be 'normal' but reveals accidently to David and his friends that she has an immensely strong gift of telepathy.

Inevitably this aberration is discovered and David, Rosalind and Petra go on the run. Because their 'defect' is not instantly visible, the authorities, including David's father are not content to let them flee to the Fringes where all the other mutants live, and instead hunt them down.  However, Petra's immense gift allows them to contact a superior race of humans, who can all use thought-pictures, living thousands of miles away in Zealand.

The race is on to see who will get to the 'deviants' first.

This novel is clearly a commentary on the dangers of messing about with genetics and the possible catastrophic effects of nuclear fallout - it was written, of course, at the height of the Cold War.  However, it also explores the idea of normality and evolution.  Mutation, is after all, the way that evolution works and to see all mutations as inherently bad or wrong, risks stifling evolution and physical and mental progress.

As I said, it's not the most exciting sci-fi novel ever and not particularl
y fantastical.  The ending is a bit obvious.  For a novel written in the fifties though, it does feature some strong female characters and it's a great easy and light read.

The Weft and The Warp finished!

Last night I finished The Weft and The Warp by Cornelius Owen.  I loved this book!

It was essentially a set of mini-stories connected by a family tree which made its way through history starting in 1066 and finishing in 1965.

Every story had a clear protagonist who was always engaging and compelling, keeping me engaged through each historical event.  My favourites were William Hastings and Eric Stainsby who appeared during The Wars of The Roses, and although Stainsby was fiction the fact that Hastings really did exist and the events portrayed in the story did happen made it even more fascinating.

I also particularly enjoyed the tale set during the time of Oliver Cromwell and the emotional depiction of how a civil war can put family members on opposing sides.  Another character I liked was Theophilis Henry Hastings (who couldn't like him with a name like that!) and I was glad that he got his heart's desire in the end (without giving away any spoilers I hope). His brother George was spine-chillingly nasty.

I read the Kindle version on my iPhone which did not include a family tree which was a shame because it would have been really interesting to see that. The family tree is available in the paperback version.

So, I thoroughly recommend this book.  It might seem a weighty tome at first glance but each period of history works well on its own so it is very easy to pick up and get into without being overwhelming.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Betterness by Umair Haque

Betterness by Umair Haque

This is a short Kindle book which discusses the need for a new paradigm in economics.  It argues that just as in mental health, where the emphasis for many professionals, has shifted from curing illness to promoting and exploring wellness, so economics needs to stop focusing on a limited ideal of success based on GDP.

The author convincingly argues that now that people in the West have moved away from an economy of just surviving, economics now needs to factor in important values such as fairness, satisfaction, health, the environment, etc., when measuring success.  

The bottom line should not be about production and growth and, as with the individual, there comes a point when more money or more profit does not equal more happiness.  He also argues that, as these factors become more and more important to individuals, so they will become more important to business and ultimately lead to more success.  

He argues that companies which have an ambition which is based outside of themselves and their own profits and shareholders have already started to see more success than those whose narrow focus is inwards.  

Whlst this was an interesting book, I'm not a business person so for me it painted a picture of how I woudl like to see the economy run rather offering any suggestions as to what I could do - other than only buy products from companies in line with my personal ethics and values.   It is possibly naive to think that business must become more ethical in the future and that ultimately it will lead to a fairer and more equitable planet.  However, I've also read the Rational Optimist and Better Angels of Our Nature and whilst at times the idea of ethical progress seems unlikely when history is viewed through a long lens it seems that things do continually get better for humanity if not for the planet, at least since the advent of agriculture, which was our fall from the Garden of Eden or as Jared Diamond puts it in Guns, Germs and Steel, the biggest mistake humanity made. 

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Weft and the Warp by Cornelius Owen

The Weft and the Warp by Cornelius Owen

According to Kindle I am now exactly 50% of the way through this book and am now caught up in the middle of the War of The Roses. 

The book continues to rattle on apace.  I thoroughly enjoyed the journey through the time of the plague and, in fact, that part did remind me of The Journal of a Plague Year by Daniel Defoe which I might read again after this.

This is a very pacey book and is certainly brings history to life.  One of the isssues with a book which travels through history can be the lack of a central character to get involved and empathise with, but this book avoids that by having a clear, empathatic protagonist for each historical era.  The differing fortunes of William Hastings and Eric Stainsby is enthralling and they seem very realistic.  In fact, the book as a whole, seems very well researched and authentic.  As well as enjoying a jolly good read  I'm fairly sure I'm learning plenty too.

So, on that note, I think I'll get back to the book.

The 12 Week Year by Brian P Moran

The 12 Week Year by Brian P Moran

Yet another book recommended by the good people over at the Miracle Morning Community on Facebook.  This is a productivity book aimed at business people but applicable to anyone who wants to get more done.

The premise is simple - a year is too long to wait to achieve a goal.  By giving ourselves goals for the year we sabotage them before we even start.  There are several reasons why a year is too long and this book sets out to overcome them by getting you to work to the much shorter timescale of 12 weeks.  The author argues that using this system you should be able to achieve your yearly goals in 3 months. 

What I like about this book is that it works well with the principles set out in The One Thing and it is also very process orientated rather than results orientated.  I think this message is starting to sink in with me as it seems to have been the theme of quite a few of the books and blogs I have read lately.  Your goal might be to 'get fit' or 'be more organised' but those are results orientated goals and not very specific at that.  How do you now when you've got there? What happens when you do get there?  Is that the end of the goal - tick it off and find new one? By focusing on the process rather than the end result, you build daily the little habits which get you to the end result and beyond.  For me, the main goal of being fit and healthy and, especially, pain-free doesn't help much.  Whereas the process goals of eat clean, don't drink and do my fifteen minute exercise routine every morning, get me to that result.  Similarly my big goal of reading 80 books in a year can only be reached by reading daily and blogging twice a week - I can't have a burst of activity and energy as my deadline draws near, it will be too late then. 

The 12 Week Year is based on the idea that a deadline encourages effort and so setting a deadline for 12 weeks instead of 12 months ensures that effort gets distributed more evenly over the year. 

I am enjoying this book - nearly finished it - and am going to use it to get started on some of the bigger projects I've been dithering about such as getting the application proposal for a doctorate completed and doing the Primal Blueprint Expert Certification course and setting up a Primal Wellbeing Coaching website.

Let's see how that goes!

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Weft and The Warp by Cornelius Owen

The Weft and The Warp by Cornelius Owen

I've finally finished my annual re-read of the Harry Potter series.  Whatever people might think of the quality of the writing, and it definitely improves as the series goes on, the sheer brilliance and complexity of the plot never ceases to amaze me.  But this post is not about Harry; instead it is about a book by a new author Cornelius Owen.

This book is lengthy so I shall blog as I go along rather than waiting until I've finished it.  The novel begins with a young man drinking in a pub with his father, an amateur genealogist.  The father has managed to trace their family tree back to the start of English history proper, the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  The novel then proceeds to follow the various stories of the people behind the names in that family tree. 

Although the book is long - it covers 900 years of history - it rattles along at a galloping pace.  There is a focus on the set pieces of history - the big battles and conflicts - but it also vividly brings out the human side behind the facts.  It appears to be very well-researched and there are even footnotes to expain some archaic words.  The descriptions of battle are exciting, vivid and realistic but once again there is a clear sense of the people involved: their fear, adrenaline and motivations.

I'm really enjoying this book and it is great way to get an overview of English history with a human perspective.  

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Big Mistakes Teachers Make

The Big Mistakes Teachers Make

I read this book on the recommendation of one of my fellow media moderators as she is a contributor of a couple of the tips.  It is a short and easy read consisting of 55 separate articles.  Whilst there are a few key contributors most have have done one or two each so the advice is interesting and varied. This would be a great book for a student teacher or NQT as each little snippet of advice is easy to digest and follow.

The most common piece of advice, which came through time and time again from different contributors, was to smile.  The old adage of 'don't smile until Christmas' is well and truly dead it would seem (and rightly so).  Many of the contributors submitted articles on the theme of connecting and building rapport with your students and smiling is definitely the first step in that.

Other tips I liked included 'don't try to go it alone', and 'get to know your students'.  The best two pieces of advice for me though, were about marking.  One was a basic bit of time-management advice but so useful.  Don't take your marking home at the weekend and then leave it until Sunday afternoon.  The mere fact of its presence will cast a pall over your whole weekend.  If you must take it home - do it Friday night or Saturday morning.  Get it off your back and out of your mind so that you can use the weekend as it should be used - to relax and refresh.  The other piece of advice is helpful in reducing resistance and resentment about marking in the first place.  Do not see it as a chore which you have to do to keep management and Ofsted happy but as a dialogue with the students.  Comment on their work as though they are there and then do them courtesy of being able to reply - always allow some time for them to comment back, correct their mistakes and add detail or whatever else you have suggested.  Otherwise all that marking really is pointless and you might as well be talking to yourself.

Of course, much of the advice in the book is common-sense but nevertheless its bright and upbeat tone provide some gentle reminders and refreshers when sometimes the sheer amount of work we have to get through gets in the way of remembering the purpose of teaching in the first place.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Finding The Time

The usual response I get from most people when they learn how much I read is something along the lines of "I wish I had the time..." This used to annoy me because the implication, of course, was that I had nothing else to do and in fact, I'm just as busy as everyone else with a full-time (and I mean full-time!) job as a teacher and an old house which takes a lot of upkeep and a family (albeit grown-up) and two dogs.  Well you get the picture.  

One statistic I came across whilst reading Mini-Habits by Stephen Guise was that the average reading speed is 300 words per minute and, at that speed, reading for an hour a day will result in getting through 6,570,000 words a year which equates to 131 50,000 word books.  Put like that then my 80 book challenge looks wimpy!

I thought I'd investigate this further so took an online speed reading test. This tested non-fiction reading and I did it on my iPhone, so on a very small screen.  My result was 400 words per minute with a 91% retention rate.  I was quite impressed with this which means my hour a day habit should get me through 175 books a year.  Obviously 50,000 words is a pretty short book, and I do take notes as a I read when I'm doing my hour-a-day non-fiction reading, but even so my target of 30 non-fiction books should be easy.

I haven't done a fiction speed reading test but I'm pretty sure that my speed for reading fiction on paper is considerably faster - probably nearer 600.  One reason I prefer to read non-fiction on my iPhone is because it slows me down so that I take in more which is not an issue with fiction.  Novels are nearer 100,000 words than 50,000 so, at that speed, spending half an hour reading before bed every day (not counting some days in the summer when I have been known to read for 5 or 6 hours straight!) I should manage 65 books.  I'm beginning to think I've set my target far too low.

When do I read?

Reading non-fiction (and writing about it) is part of my Miracle Morning routine.  I get up at 5.00am, have a few minutes quiet, record what I ate the day before, do my exercise routine and then spend an hour on the non-fiction.

Fiction is my passion and I could not even think about going to sleep if I hadn't read for at least half an hour before bed.  I rarely watch television (except Pointless!) although we do occasionally get into a nice Scandi-drama.  And I've given up Candy Crush which is a spectacular waste of time.

So squeezing in an hour and half reading per day is really no hardship and certainly doesn't mean I don't get anything else done.  Now I recognise the "I wish I had the time" comment for what it is, it doesn't stress me out anymore.

I finished Mini Habits today so I'll do a post summing it up tomorrow.  Nearly finished the The Big Mistakes Teachers Make too.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


Lately I've been coming across loads of interesting articles and books about habits.  Because of all the reading I do, I tend to have a head stuffed full of 'good' ideas for things I want to try out.  Unfortunately, I'm a bit of a serial procrastinator, probably because there is always one more book to read before actually getting on with something.

It seems that mastering the art of habits might be the answer. One book which has had a massive impact on me over the past few months is The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod.  It is not the first book I have ever read which extolls the virtues of getting up early but it is the first one which describes a really good system for making it work and using the extra time productively.  I first read this book in July and started getting up early then with great results.  I love the hour or so to myself with my coffee before everyone else gets up, and I managed to continue with it even through the summer holidays.  One of the elements of the Miracle Morning system is exercise and at first incorporating this into my morning routine went well.  I used the 30 day challenge app, set myself some exercises to do and kept on track with them pretty much every day.  However, the app started to ramp up the reps and suddenly I found my resistance to exercise growing to the point where I would find any excuse to skip that part of my morning routine.  The exercises were taking too long, and becoming too uncomfortable.

One of the best things about the Miracle Morning is the Facebook community who regularly post about their experiences with the system and also recommend apps and books that they have found useful.  One such recommendation was Mini-Habits by Stephen Guise.

I'm about halfway through this book and I think it has broken the deadlock of my exercise resistance. I've ditched the 30 day challenge app and now set myself the target of doing a plank for 30 seconds. Guise started his whole mini-habit idea through getting himself to do 1 press-up (I'd be overjoyed if I could do one press-up!).  The result for the last couple of days is that I am doing my full exercise routine every morning at a manageable level.  Now that I don't think I have to do plank for 3 minutes and 50 squats my subconscious is not fighting against doing any exercise at all.  A 30 second plank and 10 squats is more beneficial everyday than a half hour routine I have to force myself to do so only manage once or twice a week when I'm feeling 'motivated'.

I'm sticking with just the exercise mini habit for now but I'm sure that there will be potential for adding in more mini-habits to my routine.  Guise also recommends a mini-habit of reading two pages a day but that is one habit I don't have any trouble with!

Another blog I like which focuses on habits is The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I haven't read her book yet but it is on my list.

I also like the work of James Clear. He commits to publishing a blog post every Monday and Thursday, a routine which has seen his blog become successful because it is reliable.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

First Book Finished

I've just finished The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau so that means it is the official number one in my 80 book challenge.  It definitely comes under the 'inspirational' category of my non-fiction list.

I've followed Chris's blog at the Art of Nonconformity for a while now so I was already familair with his own quest to visit every country in the world (in the words of Richard Osman 'by country we mean a member of the UN in its own right').  I believe that Chris visited the 193 'official' countries plus Kosovo and Taiwan which aren't; I'm not sure if he's been to Scotland which would have been an interesting point had the referendum gone the other way.  The buzz on the blog when he visited his final country, Norway, last year was quite exciting.

The final chapters of the book dealt with the differences between achieving the goal and experiencing the process and what happens when the quest is over.  It was interesting to see how very differently motivated many of the quest participants Chris talked to were.  For some it was all about the process and the enagagement with the task they had set themselves.  These people were the ones who fully relished the challenge in the moment and loved what they did but they struggled when the quest was over.  Others, though, were focused on the end result and the achievement.  They seemed to have more struggles on the journey, coping with the inevitable points of hardship and monotony which their quests entailed, but they were the ones who felt the most satisfaction on completion of the quest and celebrated its end.

Another point that Chris made about quests was that they don't always finish the way they start. Often they pick up a momentum and life of their own. Quests usually start as a solitary endeavour, but, especially if they are bit whacky, start to attract followers and become more social.  All the people who went on travel quests seemed to begin the journey with an idea about places and ended up with their experiences being about people.  This reminds me of the fabulous novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which is worth a read.

The book finishes with a set of 'lessons'  - some of my favourites are 'Adventure is for everyone' and 'Not everyone needs to believe in your dream, but you do'.  Finally there is a chart of all the people Chris spoke to for this book and the details of their quest.  One of the best 'takeaways' from the book for me is a couple of other new blogs to try.  I particularly liked the one by Elisa Baha.

So, first one down, 79 to go! I'm still finishing off my annual re-read of the Harry Potter series and am half way through Half-Blood Prince.  I am not including these as part of my quest but I will probably blog about Harry at some point.  My thoughts on Harry could fill a book on their own.  My first fiction book is going to be The Weft and The Warp by the brand new author Cornelius Owen.

The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau

The latest book by The Art of Non-Conformity's Chris Guillebeau.

I'm about halfway through this wonderful book about quests.  Incredibly inspirational, in fact it is what inspired me to set up this 80 book challenge as my own mini-quest.

The book draws on Chris's experiences of completing his own quest to visit every country in the world - all 190+ of them.  Chris achieved his goal last year and along the way he met many other people engaged in their own personal quest.  Many of the quests involved travel and adventure but not all of them.  Some of the challenges people put themselves through are, to many people, frankly ridiculous like the guy who, after giving up all forms of transport except walking, then gave up speaking and took a vow of silence.  He now works in a university as the only silent teaching assistant! Others were undertaken for a cause, such as the girl who lived in a Tasmanian tree for more than 400 days.  Her goal was to stop loggers destroying the forest and she succeeded.  Yet more, most in fact, were undertaken for personal satisfaction such as the mother who resolved to cook one meal a week from around the world - a complete 3 course dinner with authentic ingredients starting in Albania and proceeding alphabetically. Nevertheless, Chris describes these quests in such an enthusiastic and understanding way that it is easy to go along with their ideas and 'see the point'.

The strong message from the book is that happiness is not something you sit around waiting to happen to you, it is something that happens while you are busy pursuing a goal.  Instead of having dreams resolve to make memories.

Before our children were born, my husband and I used to go caving (potholing)  almost every weekend.  For my husband's fiftieth this month, we revisited old times and, together with my brother and sister-in-law, went up to Yorkshire to go caving again.  We went down Swinsto and had a fantastic experience.  It took me a while to remember how to abseil again but actually I thought I picked it up pretty quickly considering it has been more than 21 years.  I immediately felt at home underground and, yes, I am nowhere near as strong or flexible as I was when we used to cave all the time, but still I didn't do too bad physically.  The ladder climb at the end was hard but it didn't take me nearly as long to recover as I expected.

So alongisde this book challenge I have also set myself the mini-quest of going caving in the UK at least once a month for the next year.

I'd love to take up cave photography but think I'd better get the hang of dragging myself through those underground passages before I start attempting it with camera gear!

(This picture is not me but it is pretty good one of what Swinsto is like).

A Book Lover's Adventure - My 80 Book Challenge

"And now, Harry, let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure."
Albus Dumbledore

Welcome to my blog. I am a teacher at a small rural secondary school in Derbyshire and I have an MA in Children's Literature. I teach media studies and computing but until last year I also taught English and I am the school's literacy co-ordinator.  Last year my form and I completed a 40 book challenge.  Along with many of the children I completed the challenge in 6 months, so this year I have decided to set myself an 80 book challenge.  To up the ante I have given myself various categories of books to cover but the real challenge will be to write about every book I read here.

My 80 Book Challenge

50 fiction:

5 classics
5 brand new authors
5 YA novels
5 old favourites
5 science fiction novels written before 1970
5 books that have been made into films
1 book set in Africa
1 book set in South America
1 book set in Russia
1 book set in Australia
1 book set in India

30 non-fiction

5 education/teaching books
5 popular science/psychology books
5 digital literacy/tech books
5 business books
5 biographies/autobographies
5 inspirational books