Crown and Country by David Starkey

“How are we to find the right way forward if we do not understand what has been?”

We currently live in a world of touch screens and keypads, instantaneous communication and constant information. It’s easy to forget there was once a time, not so long ago, when the internet did not exist. What did people do before the World Wide Web?

In Crown and Country, historian David Starkey takes us back to the dawn of the English monarchy and the birth of Britain as we know it today. Yes, it’s long and full of dates and names. But for anyone even remotely interested in the challenges that face modern-day Britain, this book provides a useful overview of previous struggles for leadership and power.

And, as anyone who watched the recent Russell Brand Newsnight interview can attest to, changes are afoot. We are living in a turbulent time and it is for this reason that I think the study of history is more important now than ever. How are we to find the right way forward if we do not understand what has been?

Of course Crown and Country is only the very tip of the iceberg and hardly provides a comprehensive overview of British history and politics. But if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to gain a better understanding of British leadership then it’s worth a skim-read, at least.

Plus you get to learn about the colourful lives of those ‘born to rule’ – this subject alone has always fascinated me. Imagine if all the luck (or lack of luck…) in the universe caused you to be born into the royal family and charged with the responsibility of ruling. What would you do? Isn’t it interesting the fate of millions of people is placed in the hands of ‘whoever happens to be born next in the line of succession’? I mean, it’s a bit of a gamble is it not?

Oh, and for Game of Thrones fans, you can draw a lot of parallels between real events in British history and those that happen in a A Song of Ice and Fire

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

Steve Jobs The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Steve Jobs

I really, really enjoyed this book. As the many people who had to put up with my ‘Fun facts about Steve Jobs rants’ can attest to. And I’m not even an Apple fan-girl. The only Apple product I own is an old, battered iPod Classic.

I think the reason I enjoyed it so much is because I knew very little about Steve Jobs before I started.

I knew he was famous. I knew he was despised by some, loved by others. I knew my Android-loving stepdad was adamant he was an asshole, and my Apple-loving friends were adamant he was an inspirational genius. I knew he delivered an amazing speech to Stanford graduates in 2005. I knew he died too young.

But those snippets of information were enough to convince me his biography was bound to be interesting. And I wasn’t let down. I think everyone who owns a personal computer should read this book. Because it’s not just a book about Steve Jobs – it’s a book about how personal computers came to be in nearly every home over a relatively short space of time.

This biography is about how our appetite for technology has grown rapidly over the past few decades. It’s about the war between Microsoft and Apple and the mutual hostility-cum-admiration between Jobs and Gates.

On a deeper level, it’s also a story about childhood and friendship, education and work, illness and health, love and family. It’s about the decisions people make when placed in challenging situations and the sacrifices they have to concede to succeed.

Steve Jobs had a big life and an even bigger personality. The impact he has made on our generation is enormous. But I think this has caused some people to paint him as a flawless figure, when really he led quite a fractious life. Walter Isaacson does his best to provide an accurate account of Steve Jobs, shedding light on the good, the bad and the genius. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

Bookmarked quotes

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

“We are inventing the future,” [Jobs told a job applicant]. “Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave. It’s really exhilarating. Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun. Come down here and make a dent in the universe.”

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Woman’s Syndrome by Dr Libby Weaver

Dr Libby

“Remember to see the wonder in the world. It’s everywhere, it keeps you young, and lights up your heart.” – Dr Libby

Dr Libby Weaver is a ‘Holistic Nutrition Specialist’ from New Zealand. If you have seen any of her YouTube clips or Facebook posts, you will know she is a veritable bundle of energy, ready to come at you with all the optimism she can muster. Yep, I like her.

You can probably find her books Rushing Woman’s Syndrome and Accidentally Overweight in the self-help section of your local bookstore. And let’s be honest, who likes to linger around self-help? I have to admit, I nearly didn’t start reading her work because I thought to myself “I don’t need these books! I’m not one of those accidentally overweight people or rushing women!”

What is it they say about denial?

Sure, I’m reasonably healthy and happy. But since when were these books only written for people in the depths of despair, crying over littered chocolate wrappers and last night’s takeout? Since when was being ‘averagely healthy and happy’ reason enough to shun all dietary advice and er, self-improvement?

So, one hungover Sunday morning I delved deep into self-help territory – and well, I haven’t looked back since.

I’m about to make a big statement: I think every woman should read at least one of Dr Libby’s books. I learned more about my own biology in Accidentally Overweight than I did in years of school science classes. I almost couldn’t believe that just a few weeks before reading her research I had been walking around completely unaware of how simple processes in my body worked.

Those little things called hormones? Yeah, they are quite important. And, digestion, that is a pretty essential process too. And don’t even get me started on what I learned about food. Or should I say ‘woke up to’ about food – because reading Dr Libby’s books feels like waking up to reality. You know those moments when reality dawns and the earth seems to shake a little beneath your feet, because you realise with anger and resentment the absurdity of the messages clever marketing has been feeding to you for years on end?

Every day we are told different things about food, about health, about what we are supposed to eat and drink. “Don’t forget your vitamins!” “Have you had your probiotic yoghurt this morning?” “Do you get enough grains?” “Are you allergic to gluten?” “Meat is bad, no meat is good!”

Food is a multimillion dollar industry. Next time you go to the supermarket, walk down every aisle and observe the advertising screaming at you from the shelves. No matter how much sugar, artificial flavourings or processed nasties a product contains, the manufacturers will try and make you believe that your body needs it. Cereals are perhaps the worst. Nutri-Grain? Don’t worry about all the sugar it contains, you need to eat it if you want to be strong! Special K? Eat it and you will be running along the beach in a skin-tight red swimsuit in no time!

I mean, it’s completely ridiculous right? But let’s be honest: we all want to believe it. That’s why it works. Of course we want to think that eating sugary breakfast is good for us, or pre-prepared microwave meals really are packed full of nutrients.

Dr Libby shakes it up a bit and tackles these false truths head on. In fact, she makes the message pretty simple: “Nature knows best.”

Say what now? You mean, the way food comes in nature is good for you? It doesn’t need to be refined, processed, coloured, then refined and processed some more before it contains all the nutrients you need?

Reading Dr Libby’s work is like being punched in the face with common sense – in a good way. We are fed so much crap – literally – from food giants, that women who opt for salads over sandwiches when out for lunch with their friends get berated for ‘being anorexic’, or those who eat organic are told that they are just paying for the word ‘organic’.

According to Dr Libby, “Organic is the true price of food”. It takes more energy, time and patience to cultivate. But the result is ‘real’ food, just as nature intended. Isn’t it sad that we now have to differentiate between ‘real’ food and ‘processed’ food? It now is a ridiculously difficult and expensive task to try and fill your shopping trolley with only nourishing food. And that’s just from a practical and financial perspective.

The emotional challenge lies in defending your food choices against people who judge you for being ‘boring’.  You realise the full power of food manufacturers when you are judged for choosing health and happiness, as if looking after your body and your mind is an outrageous pursuit. I can’t count the amount of times people have judged my food orders and said, voice full of condemnation, “You’re so healthy“, as if healthy is a dirty word. Sorry, should I eat food that makes me feel sick just to conform?

Anyway, I digress. Dr Libby’s two books Accidentally Overweight and Rushing Women’s Syndrome both explore and explain how the body works, how it processes food, and what foods you need to eat in order to support your body in the best way you possibly can. In addition, they both explore how hormones, such as stress and sex hormones, impact a woman’s happiness, health and weight.

Written from a biochemical perspective, Dr Libby’s work is scientifically sound and may even have you looking up words in your dictionary. Yet it also covers the relationship between emotions and food – something that I personally found enlightening and empowering. And by emotions I don’t mean crying over a bowl of ice cream – I mean emotional attachment to certain foods, such as eating chocolate after a hard day at work ‘because you deserve it’, or reaching for a bag of chips when you’re stressed. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this (heck, I eat chocolate on daily basis) – but it helps to be aware of why you make the choices that you do.

If this review has made you feel somewhat disgruntled or depressed, then I would definitely suggest you read one of Dr Libby’s books – they are meant to make you think, to shake up your current beliefs. And if you are reading the review whooping for joy because you know all this stuff already, then the books are only going to help cement your beliefs (and trust me, they take a little cementing… I’m still yo-yoing between putting my health first and heading straight for the chocolate muffins)…

But we’ve all got the right to choose.

Jess x

My Stroke of Insight by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor

Jill Bolte Taylor

“When we are being compassionate, we consider another’s circumstance with love rather than judgement… To be compassionate is to move into the right here, right now with an open heart consciousness and a willingness to be supportive.”

I never thought I’d fall in love with a non-fiction book about a stroke survivor. But Dr Jill Bolte Taylor’s story, ‘My Stroke of Insight’, is one of the most memorable and beautiful tales I’ve read in a long time.

Dr Jill was 37 when she suffered a rare form of stroke called an Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM). A large hemorrhage impaired functionality in the left side of her brain and had to be surgically removed.

This event, although traumatic, may not have been book-worthy if not for one interesting fact: Dr Jill is a brain scientist.

By suffering a stroke, she was in the unique position of being able to observe her brain “from the inside out”. Having spent most of her adult life studying the brain, she was now witnessing the deterioration of her own – an event that must have been frightening as well as enlightening.

And the best part is, she survived to tell the tale.

Dr Jill’s book is about her eight year journey to recovery, and is therefore an invaluable resource for anyone who has suffered a stroke or known someone who has.

However, this is not what made me want to read her story. I was inspired to buy this book after watching this TED Talk online.

In this 18-minute presentation, Dr Jill herself talks about her experience and refers to what she calls her “stroke of insight”.

One of the biggest revelations that Dr Jill had when parts of her left brain were impaired was that she could reach a state of peace or ‘nirvana’. Her language centre was harmed by the hemorrhage, as was that ‘little voice inside her head’ constantly speaking.

She said that she experienced complete silence and removal from years of emotional baggage – and this made her feel “at one with the universe”.

Gone were her insecurities, fears and anxieties. Instead of worrying about what other people thought or letting her imagination run wild – or her ‘story-teller’, as she likes to call it – she was at peace. She didn’t feel like a separate entity, a living being removed from everything else: she felt connected to the world.

The way she talked about this experience intrigued me, because I’d never really thought about my brain being separated into two halves. I’d heard people talk about left and right hemispheres, but I didn’t have any idea how they really worked – and this concerned me.

How is it that I’d learned so much random information, yet I still didn’t really understand how my brain functioned?

I thought it was about time I found out.

Dr Jill’s book explained the basics of brain science to me in an accessible, enjoyable way. Not only was I reading about the brain, I was reading about her journey to recovery and her spiritual enlightenment.

My Stroke of Insight is a feel good story about the human brain’s capacity to regenerate cells and heal itself, as well as the capacity people have to love and nurture the world around us.

It’s also a story about being gentle to yourself and looking after your brain and body: about aiming for optimum mental and physical health.

After her experience, Dr Jill is adamant that we possess the power to select and control our own thoughts – a belief that is shared by many people around the world, only Dr Jill draws on science to back this theory up.

She talks about how the brain is programmed to follow familiar paths, so that if you constantly think negatively it will fall into the same cellular pattern on a regular basis. She encourages people to own up to the power of their minds and focus on positive, healthy thoughts and creating empowering brain patterns, as opposed to damaging ones.

Dr Jill ultimately it believes that we have a responsibility to ourselves and the world around us to “tend carefully to the garden of our minds”.

“Without structure, censorship, or discipline, our thoughts run rampant on automatic. Because we have not learned how to more carefully manage what goes on inside our brains, we remain vulnerable to not only what other people think about us, but also to advertising and/or political manipulation.”

Food for thought, no?

Whether you are interested in achieving the state of nirvana that Dr Jill describes or simply want to better understand how the human brain works, I would highly recommend this book. It’s a quick and easy read and full of insight, humour and compassion.

Plus, in a world where the prevalence of mental illness is only continuing to rise, I think it’s important that we all have at least a little understanding about how our brains operate.

But if you can’t spare the time to read the whole book, then there’s always the TED Talk – this sums it up pretty nicely:

Bookmarked quotes

“Take responsibility for the energy you bring.”

“For me, it’s really easy to be kind to others when I remember that none of us came into this world with a manual about how to get it all right. We are ultimately a product of our biology and environment. Consequently, I choose to be compassionate with others when I consider how much painful emotional baggage we are biologically programmed to carry around. I recognize that mistakes will be made, but this does not mean that I need to either victimize myself or take your actions and mistakes personally. Your stuff is your stuff, and my stuff is my stuff.”

“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”