Alliance Good Reads: What we’re reading – the sequel

As we shared book recommendations with each other after the Easter break (which now seems like a long time ago!), we realised that between us, we in The Alliance read a lot! Inspired by this, we decided to share with you brief reviews of some of the books that have made an impact on us, whether work-related or just for fun. This post is the second in our pair of reading review posts: we hope you enjoy them and that they motivate you to compile your own summer reading list. And if you’ve read any books lately that have made an impression on you, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Liz Gooster reviews The Stress Test by Ian Robertson

Stress is bad for us, right? Well, that depends. Ian Robertson’s eye-opening book, The Stress Test, reveals that in fact the right level of stress and challenge can help us flourish. The tricky bit is finding the ‘right level’, as this varies greatly between individuals. Too much causes distress; too little produces apathy and demotivation. Robertson has a unique combination of skills, being both a clinical psychologist and a neuroscientist. He draws on his experience and his research to present a fascinating range of arguments and examples showing how our minds and our brains work, how they react and how they respond under pressure, bringing to life Nietzsche’s mantra, ‘What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’.

As well as evidence, the book puts forward practical suggestions on how we can increase our performance and raise our resilience in the face of challenge and adversity. For instance, because our physiological responses to anxiety are very similar to those of excitement (racing heart, dry mouth, butterflies in the tummy, sweating), one easy-to-implement tip is when we are nervous, to take a deep breath and tell ourselves instead that ‘I am excited’. This can produce a significant positive mental shift. While it deals with some complex issues, I found The Stress Test a very accessible and compelling read, highly recommended for anyone curious about stress, the brain and the mind. I have been telling lots of people about it, which for me is always a good sign that a book has something important to say!

Linda Feerick reviews A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

When a book reading opportunity comes my way, little does the author know but there are a couple of tests it must pass before I take it on. The first is: how did it come my way? The second is: how many pages is it? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara technically failed both these tests. The person who gave it to me (a coaching client) warned me it was ‘a bit dark’. Then when I got the book I could see it had 720 pages in very small print. This was not going well. Despite this, I was intrigued. So off I set, on a journey that would take me to places that were indeed dark, and at times a strange counterpoint to the long summer days during which I read it.

Things got off to a difficult start. I found the first 100 pages taxing: four key characters whose lives were slowly revealed, requiring the reader to pay attention, suspend second guessing and keep going. Then something interesting happened. I found myself part of a unique community whose existence would last for as long as I was reading the book. Others had started this journey too. With some I could chat about what they thought and I received gentle encouragement to keep going. Others didn’t realise that they were part of my community. I could see them reading the same book, on a train, or on a beach. There we were: complete strangers, sharing this experience in an unconsciously connected way.

Once I had settled into the book I was gripped. The story tells of four friends, so well written that you feel like you are the fifth friend. The main character, Jude, keeps his past life buried deep from his friends. And yet I, the reader, was given access to every shocking detail, forced to witness a side of life that I had skilfully avoided having to confront. It left me shocked, angry, upset just as I knew it would, just as it always has when I’ve dared to peep at this side of life in the past. Had it been a movie my hands would have been over my eyes. It left me heartbroken, a bit like the end of a summer romance.

And so back to my initial test. It turns out that I could have sailed past 720 pages as I didn’t want the book to end. It makes its presence felt in your bag, taking up too much room. But that’s a great metaphor for the story. The story took up a lot of room in my mind over the summer and I have heartily recommended it to others. When I hear myself telling them ‘It’s a bit dark’, I also add ‘but so worth it’.

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