Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday
All great leaders, thinkers, artists, athletes, and visionaries share one indelible quality. It enables them to conquer their tempers. To avoid distraction and discover great insights. To achieve happiness and do the right thing. Ryan Holiday calls it stillness–to be steady while the world spins around you.
In this book, he outlines a path for achieving this ancient, but urgently necessary way of living. Drawing on a wide range of history’s greatest thinkers, from Confucius to Seneca, Marcus Aurelius to Thich Nhat Hanh, John Stuart Mill to Nietzsche, he argues that stillness is not mere inactivity, but the doorway to self-mastery, discipline, and focus.
Holiday also examines figures who exemplified the power of stillness: baseball player Sadaharu Oh, whose study of Zen made him the greatest home run hitter of all time; Winston Churchill, who in balancing his busy public life with time spent laying bricks and painting at his Chartwell estate managed to save the world from annihilation in the process; Fred Rogers, who taught generations of children to see what was invisible to the eye; Anne Frank, whose journaling and love of nature guided her through unimaginable adversity.
More than ever, people are overwhelmed. They face obstacles and egos and competition. Stillness Is the Key offers a simple but inspiring antidote to the stress of 24/7 news and social media. The stillness that we all seek is the path to meaning, contentment, and excellence in a world that needs more of it than ever.
Back in December, I restarted my morning routine practice after feeling like I’d gotten a little off track in my life last year and struggled more than I wanted to. I’d say my practice is a combination of Hal Elrond’s Miracle Morning and Rachel Hollis’ Start Today. And an important component of what I do every morning is ready. But it has to be a book that’s either related to business or personal development.
I don’t always review the books I read in the morning on my blog, though it’s amazing how many you can crank through when you read a chapter or so a day. And yes I know, cranking through isn’t the point of these types of books. But I do read a lot more of them then I actually cover on the blog so if you’re wondering if I’ve read something, check out my Goodreads!
Stillness is the Key is the first book I’ve read by Ryan Holiday and my first real introduction to stoicism, though I’ve heard the term before. This was a fantastic read, just in terms of the content, stories, and teaching packed into such a small book. But I really identified with the practice and ideas of stoicism, at least the way Holiday presents them. I signed up for his daily newsletter after I read the book and it’s actually been several months since I finished Stillness is the Key and I’m still loving these teachings.
I think stoicism is a slight misnomer if you’re not familiar with the concept. To me, I associate the word “stoic” with being tough and strong, even in the face of immense mental or physical pain. If you’ve read George Orwell’s, Animal Farm, I think Boxer the horse embodies the concept of “stoic,” at least the way I’ve always thought of it. I might not have mentioned this on this blog before, but I identify with Boxer in how I approach work/life which SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read the book, but that’s not always a good thing. I acknowledge the good in the way that I am and I also use Boxer as a reminder of where that slippery slope can lead.
But that’s not really the use of the word “stoic” that’s on display in the concept of stoicism. Used in the way Holiday means it, Stoicism is more about creating mental fortitude, cultivating inner peace, and finding the kind of stillness that allows great leaders to make game-changing decisions with clarity and precision of thought. In short, if you’re trying to survive as a high achiever in the modern world, get this book. It is an introduction and a road map to the intensely different way of living we are all craving. This movement is growing louder, about rejecting the hustle, hustle, hustle mindset for a quieter, more focused and measured way of being.
You’ve probably heard the story about the two woodcutters. Taking a stoic approach to business is to me, a lot like that. Sharpen your ax, take deliberate, thoughtful action, and at the end of the day, reap the benefits.
I’m excited to continue cultivating the wisdom and practice of stoicism. I’ll definitely be rereading this book soon and I plan on picking up the rest of Holiday’s books for my morning reading.
Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner
In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.
In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.
A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.
When my book club picked this one, I’ll be honest and say I didn’t look at it too closely when I ordered it. So when it came in the mail, I glanced at it and was like, “Cool, they picked another WWII book” and nightstanded it. Cause ya’ll know how I feel about WWII books.
Then when my friend texted me to see if I’d started it yet and was liking it, I dug it back out of the pile and actually READ what it was about. Turns out it’s not about WWII, but the Cold War.
And then I started reading it and HOLY WOW this book was so good. I feel like I say this about every memoir I read, but honestly some people have absolutely fascinating lives. This one is the story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall for 40 years. About the family that stayed behind in East Germany and the branch of the family that went to West Germany and ultimately the United States.
Not only is this book a riveting, absolutely fascinating read, but the quality of the writing is also excellent. The result is a stunning portrait of life behind the Iron Curtain, contrasted with a portrait of life in the West during the Cold War years. A story so richly and deftly intertwined, a fiction writer couldn’t have done it better.
If you like memoirs, family stories, and history, GET THIS BOOK. I feel like this is an under-the-radar memoir that we all need to stop sleeping on. Especially because some of what is discussed in terms of what life was like at the start and end of the Cold War is applicable to our current world – and also left me with a measure of hope in these tough times. If the Berlin Wall can fall not with a bang, but with a whimper, then this too shall pass. I believe.
Looking for something good to read this weekend? Monsters, Movies, & Mayhem has been included in a new StoryBundle curated by New York Times bestselling author, Kevin J. Anderson! The “Chills & Wonder Bundle” includes 13 dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and thriller titles available in ebook format from authors like Jonathan Maberry, Lucienne Diver, Amity Greene, Kevin J. Anderson, and others. It also includes a copy of The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas! All 13 books are available for as little as $15 and a portion of the proceeds go to support the Challenger Learning Centers. The bundle is only available for a limited time so click here to buy!
Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen
An unusual murder brings together three strangers, John, Jack, and Charles, on a rainy night in London during the first World War. An eccentric little man called Bert tells them that they are now the caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica — an atlas of all the lands that have ever existed in myth and legend, fable and fairy tale. These lands, Bert claims, can be traveled to in his ship the Indigo Dragon, one of only seven vessels that is able to cross the Frontier between worlds into the Archipelago of Dreams.
Pursued by strange and terrifying creatures, the companions flee London aboard the Dragonship. Traveling to the very realm of the imagination itself, they must learn to overcome their fears and trust in one another if they are to defeat the dark forces that threaten the destiny of two worlds.
I met the author of this book (and the subsequent other titles in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series) a few years ago at Superstars Writing Seminars in Colorado Springs. I’ve heard the story of this book’s publication a few times and it never fails to both impress and move me to tears. But only recently did I get around to reading the first book in the series.
It proved to be another perfect quarantine pick. Imaginative, fun, charming – the perfect antidote to long days of worry about the world, cabin fever, and growing wanderlust.
To me, Here, There Be Dragons is a wonderful nod to classic children’s fantasy by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carrol, L. Frank Baum, and many others. I admit to not being super well-versed in all of the classic children’s fantasy titles – I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time or A Wizard of Earthsea. But I’ve read enough to say that if you enjoyed the above authors and their stories, you will love this book. Even as an adult coming to this series for the first time, I found much to love here and knew I would have been obsessed with this series as a kid.
Growing up, we had a small, highly-stylized globe that bore the inscription “here, there be dragons.” I love that this series used this classic cartographic feature as a jumping off point – that “here, there be dragons” literally means, dragons, and also that sailing into uncharted waters brings you a world of myth and magic and fantasy – and also dragons. I don’t want to reveal a few of the twists that occur in the story, but I will say they were all absolutely delightful and everything I could have hoped for and more.
Finally, it should be noted that the author is a supremely talented illustrator and both the cover and the artwork inside the book (there’s an illustration that heads each chapter) are the work of the author.
I am looking forward to acquiring the next volumes in the series and continuing on with the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica!
It’s a good day to share a little writing news!
Over the weekend I learned that two of my short stories, “White Feather” and “Hyde Park” will be published in the next Superstars Writing Seminars anthology, Hold Your Fire! “Hyde Park” will actually be a reprint as it will first appear in the Monsters, Movies, & Mayhem Anthology which is coming out later this summer! “White Feather” is a new contemporary fiction story about a woman grappling with the loss of her best friend.
Hold Your Fire is an anthology of stories celebrating the creative spark and I am incredibly excited to have two stories in the new anthology. No publication date has been announced yet for Hold Your Fire, but all proceeds from the sale of the anthology will go to benefit the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship will allows aspiring writers to attend the annual Superstars Writing Seminars in Colorado Springs.
Hold Your Fire will also feature stories from Kevin J. Anderson, Mary Stormy Pletsch, Brian Corley, Kristen Bickerstaff, CJ Erick, Wayland Smith, Kat Kellermeyer, Alicia Cay, October Kaai Santerelli, Tanya Hales, Raphyel M. Jordan, Mike Jack Stoumbos, Jace Killan, Kitty Sarkozy, M Elizabeth Ticknor and Rebecca Treasure Schibler, and Mel Koons.
And…..if all that wasn’t exciting enough, I just got my author copy of Monsters, Movies, & Mayhem in the mail today AND I found out it’s available for pre-order now on Amazon!
The Diviners by Libba Bray
Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.
Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.
As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.
I loved Libbra Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty series when it came out, but I haven’t really kept up with her other books over the years. I can’t remember if I found The Diviners series because I stumbled on the series while looking for comp titles on Amazon or an IG post from author Roshani Chokshi inspired me to check out, but both together ultimately motivated me to order the first book in the series.
I usually keep my reviews on Isle of Books positive these days and only review books I thoroughly enjoyed. And I DID thoroughly enjoyed this one, but I have to say I did not like the way Evie spoke. I DO think her voice is very true to the time…I just personally don’t like the way people spoke at that time in American history. I find it grating and I have a hard time watching old movies for the same reason. So while I’m commenting on this to say that the main character does have a distinctive voice that didn’t appeal to me…the story and series is so darn good and intriguing I read it anyway. And I already bought the next book. That should give you an idea of how strong I think this book is overall that I’m still recommending it despite having a personal beef with the main character’s voice!
This book does an excellent job laying the groundwork for what I think will be a unique, immersive, and addicting series. The first book is rather lengthy, but it does an extraordinary amount of world-building, introduces us to a big cast of characters, opens the door to what I think will be a series-spanning arc of solving a cataclysmic problem, and combines the best of many different genres into one neat package (History! Paranormal! Horror! Mystery! Young Adult! Steampunk!) The Diviners feels like the start to a boldly ambitious series and I. Am. Here. For. It.
I will note that I’m not a big fan of horror because I’m easily scared…and this book creeped me out in places. It’s definitely on the more horror-y side of things. And still I kept going because I was intrigued by the characters and the story, both the plot that spans the pages of The Diviners and the larger plot that we just get a taste of in this book.
As I mentioned above, I already bought the second book in the series and am excited to dive back into this quartet of books!
The Girl With No Face by M.H. Borosan
It’s the end of the Nineteenth Century. San Francisco’s cobblestone streets are haunted, but Chinatown has an unlikely protector in a young Daoist priestess named Li-lin. Using only her martial arts training, spiritual magic, a sword made from peachwood, and the walking, talking spirit of a human eye, Li-lin stands alone to defend her immigrant community from supernatural threats.
But when the body of a young girl is brought to the deadhouse Li-lin oversees for a local group of gangsters, she faces her most bewildering—and potentially dangerous—assignment yet. The nine-year-old has died from suffocation . . . specifically by flowers growing out of her nose and mouth. Li-lin suspects Gong Tau, a dirty and primitive form of dark magic. But who is behind the spell, and why, will take her on a perilous journey deep into a dangerous world of ghosts and spirits.
Not too long ago I raved about how much I enjoyed The Girl With Ghost Eyes. Well, The Girl With No Face managed to be even BETTER.
The second in the Daoshi Chronicles series, The Girl With No Face took everything that I loved about the first book and paired it with even stronger character development for Li-Lin and other returning characters. In particular (and this is a slight spoiler) the relationship between Li-lin and her father is a standout in this book.
What this series does really well I think (but it often isn’t mentioned in reader reviews and I didn’t mention this myself when I reviewed the first book) is it presents a strong female character that also feels contextualized to her time and culture. So yes Li-lin is a kickass heroine, but she doesn’t feel wildly anachronistic. She feels like she belongs in 1899 San Francisco and that makes her struggles and character development feel believable. There are also some nice gendered cultural touchstones in this book that are very, very well done (in particular, a conversation about foot binding and a conversation about why Li-lin’s father wanted a boy, not a girl).
The other thing it does well is present Chinese culture in a way that doesn’t feel Westernized or watered down. I would say I have an above-average knowledge of China, her history, and her culture (compared to the average American which is, I know, a super low bar), but a lot of the stories, figures, and cultural practices are things I’ve never heard of or even have the glimmer of a memory that maybe I learned about it in the past. Obviously I can’t comment on the accuracy of everything that’s used, but wow am I learning a lot by reading this series.
If you liked, but didn’t love the first book in the series, I would recommend continuing on to this one because it raised the bar on the series and I’m very, very excited for the next to come out (whenever that is).
The only thing I actually don’t like about The Daoshi Chronicles series is that I’m discovering this when it’s only two books deep. I could use about ten more of these right now haha.
I also want to note this series would be a great quarantine choice. They’re fun, fast-paced, magical, transportive, non-depressing, and they’ll teach you something if you’re open to learning, but you’re not at all required to do deep, meditative thinking.