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Reading the World: ‘Feather’ by Cao Wenxuan ***

Cao Wenxuan’s Feather is the only children’s book which I have chosen to include upon my Reading the World list.  It has been translated from its original Chinese by Chloe Garcia-Roberts, and has been written by China’s answer to Hans Christian Andersen.  Feather felt like something a little different, both to read and to write about.

31817594Feather opens with Wenxuan’s inspiration for writing the tale: ‘One day a great wind blew through Beijing.  As I was walking into the gale I suddenly noticed a single white feather on the ground go fluttering and floating up into the sky…  The feather was riding the wind with grace and ease yet at the same time precariously and helplessly.’  He wonders about the fate of the feather, and in his book, has made it visit a whole host of different birds to find out where it comes from.  Whilst this circular structure has been designed for children, Wenxuan writes: ‘Underlying this simply story… are actually the core questions of human thought: where do I come from?  Where do I want to go?  Who do I belong to?’  Essentially, he has decided to emulate the human desire of finding a sense of belonging.

Roger Mello’s illustrations were my favourite part of Feather; they are both beautiful and quirky, and really augment the story.  The writing itself is rather simplistic, as one might expect, but some very nice ideas have been woven into it.  The use of the feather’s own perspective is rather sweet and imaginative: ‘How she longed for the sky!  How she longed to soar!’  Feather is sure to delight children with a love of art and nature.  It is difficult, however, to know which age group makes up the target audience; the text is not advanced enough for a lot of children, but includes too many words to make it accessible to younger readers.

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Reading the World: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’ by Ann Morgan **

I love undertaking reading projects, such as Ann Morgan does as the basis for Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer.  I have never, however, read only translated literature throughout the course of a year, as Morgan does.  She decided, when the Olympics came to London in 2012, that she would read one work published in every country in the world during the course of the year, and blog about them.  This sounds like an easier project than she found it, on the face of it; firstly, the difficulty of deciding how many countries are in the world came about (the numbers differ wildly dependent on who is being asked), and is discussed in depth in the first chapter, before she discusses the trouble which she sometimes had in getting her hands on a single book from some of the countries.

I had read several mixed reviews about Reading the World before I began to read, and the doubt which some readers have had in Morgan’s approach to her book are, I feel, justified.  I thought that Reading the World would be like Nina Sankovitch’s wonderful account of a yearly reading journey, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, with a lot of focus upon the books chosen, the reasons for them, and a series of personal thoughts which follow the reading.  Instead, Morgan presents what feels like a series of loosely connected essays, talking at length about the ways in which we define world literature, and addressing things like cultural identity and heritage, and the kinds of books which tend to be translated into English.9781846557873

The majority of the books which Morgan read during 2012 are not even mentioned in the body of the text; rather, they have been fashioned into a list at the back of the book, which is ordered alphabetically by country.  These entries do not always include the translator, and feel a little inconsistent as a result.

Reading the World is undoubtedly an intelligent book, but it is not one which I would recommend to the general reader.  For the most part, Morgan’s prose is fine, but in several places it came across as clunky, repetitive, and even a little patronising.  There is an academic, or perhaps just a highbrow, feel to it, which does not make it an easy tome to dip in and out of at will, like many other books about books tend to be; it errs toward the heavy-going in places.

It isn’t that Reading the World is an uninteresting book; it is simply not at all what I was expecting.  I would go as far to say that it is more involved with the translation and publishing processes, than with reading the end results.  I did read Reading the World through to its conclusion, but did not find it a very engaging book.  All in all, the ideas which went toward the book were far better than its execution, which seems a great shame.  I have, perhaps fittingly, left my copy in one of those sweet little free libraries in France.

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Reading the World: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang **** (From the Archive)

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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Reading the World: ‘The Immoralist’ by Andre Gide *****

I adored Strait is the Gate, the first work of Gide’s which I read, and was eager to carry on with his books.  When I spotted a neat copy of The Immoralist in Books for Amnesty whilst on a shopping trip in Cambridge then, I simply could not resist picking it up.  Seamlessly translated from its original French by David Watson in 2000, and introduced by Alan Sheridan, the novella was first published in France in 1902.

9780141182995The Immoralist takes as its focal point a newly married couple, Michel and Marceline, and is set during the 1890s.  They travel to Tunisia for their honeymoon, where Michel becomes gravely ill with tuberculosis, and learns something fundamental about himself:  ‘During his recovery, he meets a young Arab boy, whose radiant health and beauty captivate him.  This is an awakening for him both sexually and morally and, in seeking to live according to his own desires, Michel discovers a new freedom.  But, as he also finds, freedom can be a burden.’  In this ‘awakening’, The Immoralist feels rather ahead of its time; it is never entirely explicit, but the passion and adoration – almost hero-worship – which Michel feels for the young boy has been tenderly presented.  One can find indications throughout about Michel’s homosexual tendencies; for instance, whilst in Naples, he went ‘prowling’.  Of Marceline, Sheridan writes that Michel sees her ‘as no more than a companion’, although at times one comes to believe that he loves her in his own, albeit platonic, manner; he describes her at the end of the second chapter, for instance, as ‘my wife, my life…’.

The novella – for it runs to just 124 pages – begins with a letter written by an unnamed friend of Michel’s; he and two other friends, who have all been close since their schooldays, travel to Michel after receiving a cry for help: ‘we dropped everything and set off together’.  The story which follows is as it was told to the group of friends, using Michel’s own voice.  This monologue is a simple yet effective plot device, and an awful lot is learnt about our protagonist and his decisions in consequence.  His voice is both engaging and believable, and his character fully-formed.  He is touchingly, and occasionally brutally, honest: ‘I may not love my fiancee, I told myself, but at least I have never loved another woman.  In my view that was enough to ensure our happiness.’  As far as Marceline is concerned, she is rather an exemplary figure; kind and patient, her main priority throughout is Michel, even at those times in which he does not treat her very well, or consider her feelings.

Life and mortality, as well as the overriding issue of morality, are major themes within The Immoralist.  In the first period of his recovery, Michel realises quite how astonishing life is: ‘I am still very weak, my breathing is laboured, everything tires me out, even reading.  But what would I read?  Simply existing is enough for me.’

The Immoralist has been both beautifully written and translated.  Indeed, Watson’s translation has such a fluidity to it that it seems almost a surprise that English was not simply its original language.  I was utterly absorbed throughout my reading of The Immoralist; it is a sensual novel, and it certainly holds something which feels fresh, even to the modern eye.  Gide’s descriptions are decadent, both striking and vivid, and they often have a quiet power to them: ‘The regularly spaced palm trees, drained of their colour and life, looked as if they would never stir again…  But in sleep there is still the beat of life.  Here nothing seemed to be sleeping, everything seemed dead’.

There is rather an enlightening quote which we can take from Sheridan’s introduction: ‘If Michel is an “immoralist” it is not because he finally succumbs to “immorality”: his sexual activities are incidental to the novel’s main concerns.  Michel is an “immoralist” because he has adopted Nietzsche’s view that morality is a weapon of the weak, of a slave mentality’.  Indeed, there are many rather profound ideas which are woven into the text, or which spring up whilst reading and can be considered afterwards.  In his own preface, Gide writes: ‘If I had intended to set my hero up as an exemplary figure, I admit that I would have failed.  Those few people who bothered to take an interest in Michel’s story did so only to revile him with the force of their rectitude.  Giving Marceline so many virtues was not a waste of time: Michel was not forgiven for putting himself before her.’  To see Michel’s end, of course, one needs to read this fantastic and startling novella for themselves; this reviewer shall give nothing further away.  Suffice it to say that perceptive and startling, with a powerful denouement, and a fascinating portrayal of rather an unconventional relationship, I enjoyed The Immoralist just as much as Strait as the Gate.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Oystercatchers’ to ‘Fred & Edie’

This Book Trail begins with Susan Fletcher’s fantastic Oystercatchers, and, as ever with this series, uses the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to show seven other interesting books.

1. Oystercatchers by Susan Fletcher 1925785
This is the second novel from highly acclaimed young writer Susan Fletcher, author of the award-winning “Eve Green”. Amy lies in a coma. Her older sister, Moira, comes to her in the evenings, sits beside her in a green-walled hospital room. Here, Moira confesses. She admits to her childhood selfishness which deeply hurt her family and to the self-imposed exile from the dramatic Welsh coast that had dominated and captivated her childhood; to her savagery at boarding school; to the wild, bitter and destructive heart that she carried into her adult life. Moira knows this: that she’s been a poor daughter, and a deceptive wife. But it is as Amy lies half-dying that she sees the real truth: she’s been a cruel sister, and it is this cruelty that has led them both here, to this hospital bed. A novel about trust, loss and loneliness, “Oystercatchers” is a love story with a profound darkness at its core.

 

2. The Glass House by Sophie Cooke
Following her expulsion from a private boarding school Vanessa, the middle child in a family of three daughters, returns home to the Southern Highlands to attend the local comprehensive. With both of her sisters away at school and her father working abroad this should be the perfect opportunity to spend time with her glamorous, autocratic mother. But instead of the idyllic life Vanessa craves she is dragged into a nightmarish world of secrets and abuse, violence and betrayal, and watches in horror as her mother self destructs in front of her. Only Alan, a childhood friend, offers Vanessa an escape from her unhappy life but will Vanessa find the strength to confide the secrets she has buried deep within her?

 

7694463. Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley
Returning to Manchester, her broken home, Esther moves back to the flat she used to share with her best friend Donna. Surrounded by empty gin bottles, with her past life safely taped up in stacked cardboard boxes, she proceeds to turn her back on a ‘real world’ that seems meaningless and absurd. Instead she lives in her own head. Then she meets Newton, a care-worn American wanderer with a drinker’s face and an angel’s smile. Newton changes everything. But for how long?

 

4. All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell
When Lara was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash. A prominent plastic surgeon, and Irishman, he had honed his skills on the bomb victims of the Troubles. But the family grew up used to him being absent: he only came to London for two weekends a month to work at the Harley Street clinic, where he had met their mother years before, and they only once went on a family holiday together, to Spain, where their mother cried and their father lost his temper and left early.  Because home, for their father, wasn’t Earls Court: it was Belfast, where he led his other life …  Narrated by Lara, nearing forty and nursing her dying mother, All the Beggars Riding is the heartbreaking portrait of a woman confronting her past just as she realises that the time to get any sort of answers is running out.

 

5. The China Factory by Mary Costello 13636433
An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.  Love, loss, betrayal. Grief, guilt, longing. The act of grace or forgiveness that can suddenly transform and redeem lives. In these twelve haunting stories Mary Costello carefully examines the passions and perils of everyday life and relationships and, with startling insight, casts a light on the darkest corners of the human heart.  What emerges is a compassionate exploration of how ordinary men and women endure the trials and complexities of marriage, memory, adultery, death, and the ripples of disquiet that lie just beneath the surface. With a calm intensity and an undertow of sadness, she reveals the secret fears and yearnings of her characters, and those isolated moments when a few words or a small deed can change everything, with stark and sometimes brutal consequences.

 

6. One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden
A story about three Northern Irish sisters. It has a double narrative, part of which describes their childhood and shows the impact of the political changes and the violence of the late-1960s upon the people of Ulster, as the wholeness and coherence of early childhood gradually break down.

 

16225427. The White Family by Maggie Gee
When Alfred White, patriarch of the White family, collapses at work, his wife, May, and their three disparate children find themselves confronting issues they would rather ignore. Maggie Gee skillfully weaves a narrative that reminds us that racism not only devastates the lives of its victims, but also those of its perpetrators.

 

8. Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson
In the winter of 1922 Edith Thompson and her younger lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Percy Thompson, Edith’s boorish husband. The two lovers were executed in a whirl of publicity in 1923. The case caused a sensation, a crime of passion that gripped the nation’s imagination and became the raw material for Jill Dawson’s sensual and captivating novel Fred and Edie, a fictional account of the lovers’ romance and their subsequent trial, predominantly told through Edie’s imaginary letters addressed to her lover, “Darlint Freddie”. This is a remarkable novel, that brilliantly evokes the suburban world of 1920s London (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published the same year as the trial, runs like a leitmotif throughout the novel). Edie, viewed from the public gallery as “silly, vain” is a superb literary creation–sensual, intelligent, articulate and liberated, bitterly denouncing in her letters to Freddy a world that denies “that our love might be a real love, on a par with other great loves. That just because you are from Norwood and work as a ship’s laundry man and I grew up in Stamford Hill and read a certain kind of novel, we are not capable of true emotions, of having feelings and experiences that matter“.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?

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Reading the World: ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ by Haemin Sunim ***

I haven’t made many forays into non-fiction during my Reading the World Project; whilst this has not been deliberate by any means, it is lovely to be able offer something a little different for this week’s post.  I was given a copy of Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by a dear friend after she undertook a stint of work experience at Penguin. Thoughtfully, Abbie wrote in her note that she thought this tome would be a good antidote to in-depth thesis reading, and it was.

9780241298190Nearly three million copies of the book have been sold worldwide since its publication in 2012, and it has been translated from its original Korean by Chi-Young Kim in collaboration with the author himself.  This year, in fact, marks the publication of its first English translation.  It is essentially a guide to mindfulness, of how to make the most of oneself despite outside factors sometimes wishing to throw us off course.  The subtitle of The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, ‘How to Be Calm in a Busy World’ will, I am sure, speak to many of us in the modern world.  I am personally a very calm person, and rarely get stressed out, but I find books like this lovely to dip in and out of; they are soothing, almost.

Sunim is a Buddhist monk, who lives between his native South Korea and the United States, where he lectures.  Building on a large Twitter and Facebook presence, where he tweets missives and guidance, he has aimed to offer ‘advice on everything from handling setbacks at work to dealing with love and relationships’.  His ‘simple, compassionate teachings transcend religion, borders and ages, and serve as a calming reminder of the strength and joy that come from slowing down’.  This inclusivity is admirable, certainly; one thing which we dearly need in this world is a demonstration of the things which unite us, rather than divide us.

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been split into several sections – ‘Rest’, ‘Mindfulness’, ‘Passion’, ‘Relationships’, ‘Love’, ‘Life’, ‘The Future’, and ‘Spirituality’.  Each chapter opens with an essay, which muses upon the subject in question and how best Sunim thinks we should approach it, and is then followed by a series of short pieces, ‘words of advice and wisdom’.

To me, a lot of the short sections felt a little cheesy and patronising, which I’m sure was unintentional on part of the author; we are told, for example: ‘Pat yourself on the back for the hard work you are doing.  Then go to bed one hour earlier as a gift to your body’.  I preferred the essays, which were largely thoughtful and well thought through.  There are some nice pieces of advice given about how best to take notice of the world around us, and spending time with loved ones.  Occasionally, though, this advice is just plain odd, and blunt in its delivery: ‘A good family trip can prevent divorce’.

Much of the book, as one might expect, spirals around spirituality and religion, two topics which do not particularly appeal to me as an atheist.  I did find that Sunim came across as rather preachy at times, which did not endear me to him.  However, he suggests meditation as a way to grasp one’s own consciousness of the world and their place within it, which, I felt, was quite a nice piece of advice which could be easily worked into even a hectic day.  Some of his ideas are nice, and he is clearly passionate about what he is writing about, however, so there is a nice balance to be found within.  It does seem at times as though Sunim was merely working through his own insecurities whilst writing, and several of the asides seem downright obvious.

On an aesthetic level, The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down has been beautifully designed, and put me in mind of the recent craze of lovely hygge hardbacks.  Lovely illustrations have been included throughout, which add yet another dimension of calm to the tome.

I believe that The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down will be of most use to those who suffer with anxiety disorders and depression; it is a rather light but fitting book that can be read one small part at a time, and offers useful advice for seeing positives and focusing upon things of importance to the individual.  The author, in fact, recommends that it is not read all in one go, from cover to cover; rather, he says, sections should be digested and reflected upon by the reader before he or she moves on.  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down would be a very thoughtful addition to a loved one’s bedside table or reading stack, to provide respite from hectic lives, stresses, and other problems.

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