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You never quite know what life is going to serve up next and even the happiest moments or saddest news can be turned around in a heartbeat. For the author Mark Matousek his down was learning he was HIV positive, while his up, a while later, was being informed that it wasn't quite the death sentence originally imposed and that he had quite a bit of life left. In this book he looks at how you can find the good in the bad or, to quote the subtitle, the keys to' Using your pain to transform your life'. The art of survival is an intriguing one. The same scale of trauma affects different people in different ways and this book seeks to draw on the wisdom of those who triumph in the face of adversity to share what they know and inspire the same behaviour in us.
Matousek has already published two memoirs, and in a way this is a third, with the key difference that the stories told are mainly not his own. This is a man who appears to know everyone worth knowing. He interviews hundreds of well-known faces -- including Joan Didion, Elie Wiesel, and Isabel Allende -- and experts such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jonathan Kozol, and Sogyal Rimpoche. The stories feature an international and colourful cast of characters, from New Jersey soccer moms to Yugoslavian refugees and Brazilian opera singers and stories that initially seem poles apart link together and flow on seamlessly thanks to the author's narrative.
This book was nothing like I expected, but in a good way. I was anticipating a somewhat saccharine self-help text designed to make the reader feel grateful that the author was willing to share even a few titbits of their considerable wisdom with them. Instead I was served up an intriguing and thought-provoking series of interviews, parables and stories belonging to other people and simply knitted together by the author with some insights of his own thrown in for good measure.
I read every page though before I cracked the cover I wasn't sure this was something I'd manage. But, once I started I couldn't stop, and the variety of the individuals featured and their stories - sometimes wild and wacky, sometimes sad but inspiring - kept me turning the pages. I found it incredibly absorbing but the sort I felt I should pace myself with too, to allow time to digest what I was hearing before moving on to the next story.
This is an extremely easy-to-read book, written with the slick hand of a professional journalist. There are 42 chapters, some long, some much shorter, and it struck me as very Chicken Soup-esque in places with each contributor given however much space they needed to tell their story. Some essays are not original material, having previously appeared in the likes of O: The Oprah Magazine and the New Yorker among others, but are unlikely to be that familiar to a UK audience.
The book is spiritual, certainly, but it doesn't fall into the trap of being overly, and alienatingly, religious for which I was grateful. Overall it was a very pleasant surprise. You can get as much or as little from it as you wish and it's perfectly possible to view it as a nice piece of writing and nothing more, if you're not specifically looking for pain transforming guidelines at this point in time. If you are, though, while you might not find a dummy's guide with step by step instructions, there are a lot of pointers to set you in the right direction and a lot of food for thought.
This review appeared earlier on www.thebookbag.co.uk
Published in January 2012, this book is widely available in paperback but there's no Kindle version as yet.