The Mindful Reader: A sensible approach to mental strength

Last modified: 12/14/2014 12:53:01 AM
My son saw my review copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin and said it’s all over social media, even though it’s not officially out until Jan. 1. Which is fitting, because the book grew out of a blog post that went viral. By the time she was 26, Morin had experienced the unexpected deaths of her mother and husband. When she was 31, her new father-in-law died of cancer. A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Maine, Morin wrote her post about mental strength. It had 10 million views in a few weeks.

Morin’s advice isn’t necessarily new – don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t waste energy on what you can’t control and don’t dwell on the past – but her story is compelling. A conversational style makes the book easy to read. She includes diagnostic checklists (I uneasily identified myself as a people pleaser), and offers dos and don’ts at the end of each chapter to help readers coach themselves into better habits. She cautions those seeking a quick fix, “Increasing your mental strength isn’t about simply reading this book or declaring that you’re tough. Instead it’s about incorporating strategies into your life that will help you reach your full potential.”

And that’s what kept me reading. I’m fairly skeptical of positive psychology, but Morin is clear that her book isn’t about thinking good thoughts, but unthinking bad ones and working on healthier replacements for mental bad habits. It’s a sensible approach, prescribed in realistic, achievable actions. She also notes “training your brain” is no easier than training your body and requires discipline and hard work. Which seems like a message worthy of going viral.

Old age unvarnished

Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty is mainly about old age: “However much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy.” Hall covers his usual topics through the lens of aging – his life and work, New Hampshire, family, the habits and passions that make life comfortable and interesting. With self-deprecating humor and sharp observation, he admits to lighting his easy chair on fire by losing a cigarette, gives a history of his beards, pays homage to the women who make his independent living possible, and laments the aggravations of an aging body. Hall is matter of fact about death: “Except in print, I no longer dwell on it.” Maybe not, but it’s poignant to read an octogenarian’s reflections on sitting with his dying grandmother and wife decades ago. As always, he is smart and fascinating. Describing the satisfying result of meticulous revision Hall notes, “A scrupulous passion of style – word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity – set forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.” Indeed. “New poems no longer come to me . . . . Prose endures.” For which readers of Essays After Eighty will be grateful.

A beautiful story

I knew Lissa Warren, who lives in southern New Hampshire, is an accomplished editor and publicity director. She’s also a terrific writer. Her memoir, The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat, is beautiful. It’s not just the story of Ting, her family’s Korat cat, who came into their home when her retired father needed a pet to keep him company. It’s also a grown daughter’s love letter to her parents. It’s a story of illness, fear and grief. And eventually, peace, in part from life with Ting: “The clocks in our house were superfluous; we marked our time by the cat.” I don’t want to give too much away, because part of the pleasure of this book is Warren’s unfolding of the various facets of her story. This isn’t just another book about a special pet – it’s an incredible story of care and determination, love and devotion, and family.

Making an exception

I don’t usually review children’s books, but when a copy of Cat In the City, written by Julie Salamon and illustrated by New Hampshire artist Jill Weber, arrived in my mailbox, it seemed worthy of an exception. This time of year brings out the child in all of us, and adult readers are often looking for a book to share with children they may not see often. Cat In the City is that kind of book, a warm tale well told, whose hero, Pretty Boy, is a fluffy white stray who stumbles into the dog run at Washington Square Park in New York and takes up with its inhabitants as he escapes from the neighborhood hawk. When Pretty Boy meets his new canine friends’ people, his life is transformed. As the story continues, he manages to repay the human kindness he has experienced again and again. Weber’s colorful illustrations remind me of Maira Kalman’s – stylized and unfussy but full of life and movement and emotion.




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