I read about half the amount I normally do over the last couple of months with one thing and another my mind just felt too restless. Far easier to zone out in front of YouTube. However, I did read three non-fiction books which surprised no one more than me.
Breath by James Nestor
“The fix is easy: breathe less. But that’s harder than it sounds. We’ve become conditioned to breathe too much, just as we’ve been conditioned to eat too much. With some effort and training, however, breathing less can become an unconscious habit.”
I had an Audible credit to use up and had heard this book mentioned so much, I took a chance. Journalist Nestor spends ten years investigating the power of the breath after having a transformative experience at a community breathwork class recommended by his doctor. He discovers how the breath affects a multitude of physical and mental issues from asthma and anxiety to dental deformities and erectile dysfunction. He undergoes an arduous experiment to demonstrate the benefits of nasal breathing and meets people from around the world who work with the breath. He discovers that the optimal length of inward and outward breaths is a substantial 5.5 seconds each and that most of us are over-breathing. The great thing about the audiobook version is the breathing methods section at the end. It’s much easier to have someone talk you through the techniques as you do them rather than read them. I will be particularly focusing on the yogic alternate nostril breathing to reduce anxiety. 4/5
Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers 3) by Becky Chambers
In the first two books, the Exodan Fleet (32 spaceships that left a collapsing Earth for good) is mentioned regularly but we never got any real details. Therefore I was happy to find book 3 is set aboard the Fleet and we get the background to how and why it functions as it does. We learn how the ‘homesteader’ ships were designed to be places where generations of Humans would live and die in the hope of making alien contact. This happened eventually and now although many humans have left the Fleet to live ‘planetside’, many still remain.
It’s easy to think of Sci-fi books as being rather cold and inhuman but the amount of warmth and humanity Becky Chambers has infused into this series is quite extraordinary. In book 3 we follow a range of characters aboard the Fleet: Isabel, an elderly Archivist, Kip, a boy desperate for an exciting life away from the Fleet, Sawyer, a ‘grounder’ who wonders if the Fleet will provide the home he’s been missing, Eyas, a ‘caretaker’ who recycles bodies into compost and Tessa, sister of Ashby from the first book.
Like the first two books, there isn’t not much of an over-arching plot-line. We get to know these characters and their, hopes and dreams. We follow as most try and decide whether their futures lie with the Fleet. I wish I could convey how in Chambers’ hands, that is more than enough. She grew up in a scientific household so the background is there but these stories are all about people. I was certain I wouldn’t tear up as with the previous books but guess what? I was wrong. 4.5/5
The Barbizon by Paulina Bren
“The Barbizon, through much of the twentieth century, had been a place where women felt safe, where they had a room of their own to plot and plan the rest of their lives. The hotel set them free. It freed up their ambition, tapping into their desires deemed off limits elsewhere, but imaginable, realizable, doable, in the City of Dreams.“
I don’t often read non-fiction unless it’s personal development, but my friend bought me this e-book which is a slice of social history. It follows the inhabitants of the The Barbizon Residential Hotel for Women from its construction in the 1920s through to its closure in 2001. It was seen as a safe place to stay for middle/upper class young women moving to New York to pursue careers in the Arts. First came the New Women striking out in the workplace after being allowed to do as result of the First World War. We often think that women’s rights follow a linear progression but there was a definite step backwards in the 1950s as woman’s main goal seems to be marriage and children and at a young age at that.
The winners of the Guest Editors competition run by Madomoiselle magazine stayed at The Barbizon and these bright young things included Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion and Ali McGraw. Plath based her book The Bell Jar on her time at The Barbizon which she renamed The Amazon. Many models stayed there as well as actresses – Grace Kelly lived there for three years. While it did allow women to live independently in New York it was not without its restrictions. Men were not allowed past the lobby and there was not an African American resident until Barbara Chase in 1956. Of just as much interest to me were the ‘Lone Women’ who were the ones without dates on Saturday nights and who never made it in their chosen career. Some of these morphed into ‘The Women’ , elderly ladies who had lived there since the 30s and 40s and who could not be evicted thanks for rent control laws. They were still tucked away behind secret doorways in the corridors as it was turned into luxury condos and the likes of Ricky Gervais and P Diddy moved in during the 2000s. 4/5
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
“There’s more at stake here than just slavery, my brother. It’s a question of who will own the land, the people, the power. You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.”
This book has a huge scope but manages to cover around three hundred years of history in around 300 pages. It starts with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, in Ghana, Africa in the 1700s. Effia is married off to a British slave trader while Esi is sold by him to an American plantation owner. We then follow their descendants down the generations in Africa and America up to the early 21st century. It personalises the history of the slave trade and shows how the effects reverberate through the centuries. It shows the sickening treatment of slaves but lets the facts speak for themselves. With so much time to cover, it moves on at a swift rate with a time jump accompanying the introduction of each new descendent. However I really engaged with each of the characters and was entirely caught up in their lives. It didn’t read like a history lesson although I learnt a lot. Above all, it’s a well written, absorbing story. 4.25/5
Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday
“We are restless because deep in our hearts we know now that our happiness is found elsewhere, and our work, no matter how valuable it is to us or to others, cannot take its place. But we hurry on anyway, and attend to our business because we need to matter, and we don’t always realize we already do.”
This non-fiction book is a series of short essays focusing on the benefits of stillness. I recently learnt Transcendental Meditation and thought it would help cement the practice but it’s broader than that, covering the varied ways we can find a sense of stillness. That might be through exercise, getting enough sleep or putting boundaries around work. Holiday uses a wide range of stories about various people throughout history, some as examples of what to do and some of what not to do. He has a strong interest in Stoic philosophy so Seneca and his ilk are here but so are Bill Gates, Leonardo di Vinci, Tiger Woods and artist Marina Abramovic who for her performance piece ‘The Artist is Present’, sat in a chair and locked eyes with visitors to MoMA for nearly three months. The benefits of stillness range from making better decisions to simply not missing out on your own life. 4/5
How has your reading been over the summer months? Any book you’d like to share?