At the end of October I was overly optimistic about my energy reserves. Don’t know why, because, as a I look back at the end of October, I was already feeling tired and in a ‘meh’ mood at times. But, as it goes, the body keeps the score.
As soon as I submitted my last Blockchain text and decided to take the first weeks of November easy, my body switched into “sorry, can’t do much” mode. What was laziness at the beginning became exhaustion at the end. Needless to say, my “30-35 hours of work a week” never happened.
But some other good things did.
At first I was surprised by my low energy. The only wish I had was to read. Why not then? I’d wanted for a long time to get absorbed in a book.
In the first two week I finished three books, two of which had been started much earlier in the year. Then I read another book and a short legend in Spanish (my first one).
I like it. Every time I finish a book, especially if it is non-fiction and if I’ve been “reading” it for months, I feel like I’ve done something important. Climbed another step on the ladder of knowledge. Expanded my horizons a little bit. Got new ideas and perspectives. Something like this.
I wanted to start writing reviews but couldn’t bring myself to do it. But I did time myself reading with every book to get a better understanding of how long it actually takes. It turns out that I vastly underestimated the time and effort needed to cover a book. Strangely, I often have an idea that I can do it in a couple of days. As my stats show, I’m not that advanced yet. Not even close.
Anyway, these are my November treasures:
Le Capitaine Fracasse by Theophile Gothier
It’s an adventure novel set in the seventeenth century about a destitute nobleman who decides to leave his delapidated castle and follow the company of comedians after they find shelter at his place during a particularly nasty night. Of course, he falls in love with one of the comedians who later turns out to be of noble descent too. It was my first book of this type in French and in the original.
I used to love this genre when I was younger and thought it would be an easy and entertaining read when I bought it. And it was, but only with the second half of the book. It wasn’t as entertaining as it used to be because now all these adventures seem too naive and simplistic while the characters look somewhat two-dimensional. But it’s alright. I’m glad I read it.
With the first half, especially at the beginning, I massively struggled though. Those descriptions and flowery speeches of the comedians making endless references to ancient comedies and heroes which I don’t know plus literary French tenses where I had to guess the verbs… One third through I got fed up with translating and trained myself to guess more by the context. It took some time, but by the final chapters I was reading the book more or less easily.
At one point I was sitting with a map of Paris and following the streets with the characters. As it seems, in the seventeenth century Paris was tiny and I even found its old maps and something about the main landmarks.
When I was reading Notre Dame de Paris at the age of eleven, it bored me to death to read the description of the city, the cathedral and everything else. I just wanted to know what happened to Esmeralda, and it took a lot of patience to get through all historical passages Hugo was so keen on. I even skipped one chapter entirely – somehting I never do with books (my conscience still reminds me of it). But now, I suspect, it would be a very different experience. The book I bough in France 12 years ago is still waiting on my shelf and I wonder when its time will come.
I started Fracasse last year and I didn’t track the time then. So I guess in total it took more than 20 hours to finish it. It is three or four times longer than I had hoped to spend on it. The question is why did I have those unrealistic expectations?
The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
I first heard of the book and the concept of the Black Swan in 2020. It seemed intriguing. I started with the summary then, but later I decided to read the book itself and started it in April. I had expected it to be something like a typical bestseller that can be skimmed through. It is a bestseller after all. But no, not again.
It is a philosophical essay, as the author himself calls it. It does have a certain structure but there are quite a lot of stories, discussions and diversions along the way too. With numerous references to philosophical concepts, statistics and mathematics. In addition, because it’s a whole theory the author has been developing over many years, there are a lot of terms he invented to explain it all.
I wasn’t ready for this format. You have to follow the author as he takes one point and proves it with multiple arguments that intetwine with one another as (I guess) it is done in philosophy books and essays. With hindsight, I understand I should have kept notes of all those terms. Without them, I got lost from time to time.
This is exactly the type of book that makes me feel that I lack some basic education. I did study some philosophy at university but I never mastered the subject to enjoy all those references the author makes in the book. The same goes for economy and statistics – I understand the gist but not the details and how it actually works.
Then I found out that Taleb speaks seven languages and reads in ten, including Arabic, Hebrew and Greek. He’s been a mathematical practitioner, a hedge fund manager, and a derivatives trader, a mathematical researcher, scholar and philosophical essayist. What a mind! I wonder what it feels like when one has such deep knowledge of a very exact science and of philosophy.
It is very inspiring to read about such people and to read their works. I liked the book. It is not easy, but I agree with the ideas in general. I’ve made many bookmarks and notes on the margin. Sometimes I read something that I’d already figured out myself and that usually makes me feel good about my way of thinking.
The Black Swan is one of the five books on the same topic of uncertainty. I have another two on my shelf, Antifrigile and Skin in the Game. So I hope by the time I’ve read them all, I’ll be much more at ease with all these concepts and find how to apply them in real life.
18 hours went to the book. The language wasn’t particularly difficult, but following the author was tricky.
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman
I’d been meaning to read this book for a while. I’d heard a lot about it. I’d looked at it several times in a bookshop. During the language coaching course, I got tired of hearing how emotional intelligence is fundamental and how we should do everything to avoid ‘amygdala hijack’. So I read the book.
I didn’t find much new information. As I was reading, I had a constant deja vu – I’ve already seen all this in other places. Given the fact that the book was actually published in 1995, it may well be the case. The only thing that surprised me was that children show patterns of behaviour that showcase their emotional intelligence skills already by the age of two. Can you imagine? They already can console or bully each other depending on what they experience at home.
Somehow I didn’t like the tone of the book – overly enthusiastic, I’d say. As if everything is about being emotionally intelligent. What is it then? Being able to identify one’s emotions, exercise self-control, zeal, perseverence and, of course, empathy, as well as being able to motivate oneself. This is all good and very useful, no doubt. But the reasons one may be unhappy in life may go way deeper, to the subconscious patterns not easily discovered without proper therapy. There’s not so much about it in the book, though.
Perhaps, the book is just old. I clearly remember that 10-15 years ago, when I was studying psychology, there wasn’t much talk about trauma, PTSD, narcissism, life scripts or resourcefulness. Now they are extremely popular topics and are all over the place on the Internet and everyday life.
So I guess I know enough of emotional intelligence to navigate life for now. The book took 12.5 hours with highlighting some ideas. Still a lot for the material I 90% knew.
Blink by Malcom Gladwell
Short and sweet. I liked it. Even though it’s stories within stories, the book does have a clear structure and a clear message in each chapter.
It was the third time I had come across the same idea that we have two types of thinking – one rational and one irrational (or intuition as it’s sometimes referred to). But the stories and experiments described in the book are memorable and easy to relate to the theory behind them.
One idea I especially liked was about spontaneity: too much information is usually overwhelming and confusing, but several well-chosen principles may guide us well and allow us to spontaneously react to the situation. The main questions is then how to identify those principles.
I think I have found mine in teaching. And even though I never know what direction a class will take, as it depends on what ideas, questions or needs the student brings, I know how to guide the lesson to practice the necessary skills and respond to the learner.
In total I spent a bit more than 9 hours on the book. Maybe I’ll write a full review later.
Leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer
That was my first book in Spanish in the original (I read it with parallel translation into Russian and only were legends were available – La Cruz del diablo, Los ojos verdes, El Monte de las Animas, La promesa, El rayo de luna). I bought it almost par hasard, attracted by the word “legends”. And the book proved to be wonderful, both in terms of the content and the writing style.
At the beginning it was almost a game to guess words and find their equivalents in English or French. Then it became easier and easier to understand it. I almost got used to the conjugation of verbs. At the end it got me interested in Spanish culture, history and geography (bravo, Gustavo!). So after the book I spent one evening watching about Soria and the Templars in Spanish, which gave me some listening practice as well (it was hard to understand, but at least I caught some words I read in the book).
Of course, without the Russian translation it would have been almost insurmountable, but my aim was just to “taste” Spanish texts and see how fast I can learn to see the structure. I would say the experiment was a success. I’d really like to listen to it as an audio book and read more of the same author.
With my husband, we watched miniseries called Mare of Easttown, which was a sort of come back for me. I hadn’t watched anything for more than a month. At one point I started thinking that series are time wasters and should be avoided unless it’s something extraordinary like Peaky Blinders or Shelock. But why?
The first thought I had at the beginning of the series was “Wow, she looks soooo bad! How is it possible to play it so realistically?” Then it was the same with everybody else – you forget that it is fiction and get engrossed in those people’s lives.
I liked the miniseries. The topic is difficult, it’s true. But it’s worth watching because of the acting that offers a glimpse into the world of human relationships soaked in trauma.
I also went back to watching Black Mirror after the break of more than a year. At one point the series seemed too shocking for me, so I gave it up for a while. But now it was OK. It brought some ideas and reflections about the future and the role of technology in it. I am basically a techno pessimist (because if some technology can be used for ill purposes, it will be exactly so, this is in people’s nature), so topics brought up by Black Mirror do start me on thinking of contingency plans.
In November I discovered the genre of dramas on BBC Radio 4 and really enjoyed listening to some of them. Before I had mostly focused on podcasts like Word of Mouth or 7 Millards de Voisins, but they are factual, subject specific (so sometimes difficult) and long (30 minutes and longer).
With dramas, I got exposure to dialogues and narrative, which are a bit different type of language, with rich variety of intonation and dialects. So I found them an even better tool to get some listening practice (with films and TV series I’m stuck in a bad habit of turning on subtitles and trying to understand every word). Plus I can give rest to my eyes (I get tired from bright pictures).
So here are the dramas I checked out.
- The Archers, “a contemporary drama in a rural setting” which has been running since 1951. A British classic, as it turned out. I particularly liked the many characters across different ages, each with their own story, speaking style and accent. It was a bit difficult at the beginning, then I learnt to distinguish them by voices. So many different relationships! It does give a feel of what it’s like to live in a small community. Each episode is only 13 minutes long including the theme tune, so it’s really easy to tune in. And there’s a whole website that describes all the characters and their story – it’s relatively easy to get into this world.
- This Thing of Darkness (series 2), a “drama inspired by a real forensic psychologist and her work in secure prisons” about a young woman who’s coming out of prison and the man she set fire to. As a student, I used to watch Criminal Mind and was fascinated by behavioural science. But after five seasons I had had enough of those disgusting violent crimes, couldn’t watch it any longer. But my interest in how people’s behaviour can be analysed and their mind be read remained. So I really liked This Thing of Darkness which, I think, gives a very vivid description of what obsession and stalking are and they are felt at the other end, from the inside as well as from the outside: the same circumstances are presented by both the victim and the offender. The narrative is given by a psychologist who is involved in work with them both, so she gives insights into the situation as well. Highly recommended!
- Broken Eglish, another drama set in rural France that follows a coulpe as their teenage son disappears. I guess I was lured by “rural France” which reminds me of my trip to France more than ten years ago. I can still feel the warmth, even heat, of that summer, dark starry night, a tiny village, the air filled with the fragrant smell of flowers, particular sounds of birds and crickets unheard of in central Russia … Well, the background of the drama does have the same sounds, but the story itself is a rather tragic one. Still, I enjoyed listening to it.
Such are my finds. I’m happy I’ve discovered this format and I don’t know why I steered clear of them before. I have long stopped watching or reading stories focused on ups and downs of relationships between people, but these dramas revived my interest in them. I would attribute it to the powers of intonation, accents and the expression of spoken language in general, though. This is what I missed in podcasts.
At the end of November I had a minor planned operation, which went well but unexpectedly sent me into a long recovery period. As it turned out, even sitting at home with little work, I managed to steadily overwork myself and continue draining my inner resources (how, I wonder? by thinking?). So a relatively small amount of stress caused quite a breakdown and put me lying on the sofa unable to read or watch movies. OK, lesson learnt. It’s no good state, lying like that. I will have to start using my energy much more carefully.
But as I was lying and reflecting on my state, I came up with a new way to rest and relax – something similar to scrapbooking. Actually, it was an ad for a Creative Bullet Journal course, and I thought, “why not?” I’ve been journalling for years but I always focused on the text. Now I’ve decided to try and add some colour to it. Focus on impressions more.
Soon I bought a new diary and ordered several sets of stickers. Then I went down the rabbit hole exploring different ways of organising planners, journal and ways of decorating them. Now I know how to put my washi tapes and felt-tip pens to use =)
I also want to print some photos in small size and glue them to my diary. As it’s the end of autumn which was exceptionally beautiful this year, I think I’ll make an overview of all the three months in my new diary, to go through those wonderful colours and my memories again. Feeling quite enthusiastic!
And here’s a wonderful website of washi tapes I’ve discovered. Just look at what beauty it is, I’m mesmerised! Pity, it’s too expensive for me to order them now, but who knows.
Plans for December
The plan is easy – to rest and restore my batteries! I badly need to learn to use my energy wisely and invest it well. It seems I need to learn to rest, but for now I’m not sure how to do that exactly. Bath? Playing games? Watching funny videos?
I’m going to continue with my books. I still haven’t finished The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.
Obviously, I’m going to create my new bullet journal.
As it’s the end of the year and a festive period is approaching fast, I don’t think I’ll do anything useful. I’ll just continue counting hours spent on work, books, languages, video and socialising (too much of it exhausts me) to find the optimal number for each category.