There has been a long break between my last post and this one. Those of you who know me personally will know I have been working hard settling into a new job, but I have also been on holiday for the last week, spending time with family and getting sunburnt in Dorset. It was a conscious choice not to write anything last week. I set up my out of office email on my work computer and let my work phone run out of battery. I finished up my writing deadline and emailed my publisher to tell her I was away for a few days. I didn’t post on my social media accounts and I left this blog thoroughly unattended.
Instead, the day before we left for holiday, I went to the library.
Because holiday means one thing to me. Holiday means reading and reading means rest.
Rest is so important for everyone, but when you have a mental illness rest becomes almost comically essential. My partner has a handy analogy for describing how energy levels can differ if you are struggling mentally with anxiety or depression. He calls it the Spoons analogy and it goes something like this:
Two people both start a day with a certain amount of spoons in their hands – one has a mental illness and one does not. The healthier person gets up, gets dressed, and goes to work. It costs them one spoon. They have many left over for the rest of the day. The other person, the person who struggles with mental illness, does the same. They get up, get dressed, and go to work. It costs them three spoons. So by the time they get home from work, all their spoons are gone. Perhaps they even fall into bed straight away. Perhaps even some days it costs them all of their spoons just to get out of bed and they can’t even get to work. Meanwhile, the healthier person goes out for dinner, or works late into the evening, or has friends round for a drink, dipping into their remaining energy supplies. They still have the spoons, you see.
So when you can run out of spoons before lunch time, the idea of a week off from all those “spoon demanding” activities is really important. It’s spoon replenishing time. For me, this is done through as much sleep as I can get, spending relaxing time with friends whom I trust and feel comfortable with, hugging my family, and reading. As much reading as I can get done in between the sleeping and friend-time and hugging.
So I got six books out of the library. I set myself back a bit by accidentally leaving one in Manchester, but all five came away with us and I managed to get through three as well as diving in and out of all my favourite places to read on the web. So here is my list of what I’ve been reading in the last week and the things that have really stuck with me.
The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory
So, I love historical fiction. I love reading it, I love writing it, it’s basically my jam. And Philippa Gregory is basically one of my royal family, up there with Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. I have been a fan since I was a teenager and I was sneakily devouring the steamy passages of her novels under the desk during home room. Gregory’s greatest skill is her ability to make history breathe and live under her hand – to take a familiar story and re-energise it with an unfamiliar perspective. The Queen’s Fool is a great example of this. She tells the story of the reign of Mary I within the context of the narrative of Jewish immigrants at this time. I just love that kind of thing. I took it to the hairdressers and three hours later, with blonder hair and a lighter wallet, I had finished!
The Taxidermists Daughter by Kate Mosse
I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while. The thing I enjoy about Kate Mosse is her interest in folklore and fairy tale. I read her collection of short stories, The Mistletoe Bride, last year and was struck by the calibre of her ideas. However, it seemed to me all of the concepts behind the short stories were not properly serviced by the length and medium of short story – rather they felt like rough sketches for grand novels to come, so I was excited to read this folklore inspired tale in a longer form. It didn’t disappoint. With room to spread her wings, Mosse’s ideas really take flight and the secret mysticism of the English landscape comes alive. I have some niggles with her style – there were too many narrative voices for me personally, – but the story was gripping.
The fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy
My first introduction to Andrea Levy was Small Island when I was about nineteen. I had expected it to be something standard, a wartime love story, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. In that novel I found a British voice that I had never really heard before, a captivating, bold voice telling the story of the Carribbean immigration of the 1950’s. There is no greater joy for me in literature than having my eyes opened to someone’s world for the first time and that is exactly what Levy does so well. She plunges you head first into British-Jamaican world she has created and assaults your senses. The fruit of the Lemon explores these narratives from a first generation British point of view, and is just another, deeper level of Levy’s discussion of what it means to belong, to have a heritage, and to face prejudice. Next I’m planning to read her short stories to see how her voice changes or adapts to that medium.
I am a Mslexia subscriber and although my magazine arrived ages ago I had been saving it for holiday reading. In this issue the original content, on the theme of ‘Monsters,’ was curious and revealing. I found Ana Salote’s short story, We are family, to be almost dystopian in tone as motifs of animal testing, medical research and murder are woven together unexpectedly.I have re-read it many times, enjoying the way I have come to a different understanding with each re-reading. Hilary Boyd’s Hide and Seek disturbed me, as I am sure it was meant to do since it involves a small boy and a horrifying stranger, and was a very effective, startling piece of fiction. There were lots of gems to read and enjoy in this issue. Please consider subscribing to gain access to brilliant fiction an writing tips, by following the link above.
‘The Neurosurgeon who turned his fight against terminal cancer into a heartbreaking book.’ by Heather Hodson ‘The Neurosurgeon who turned his fight against terminal cancer into a heartbreaking book.’ by Heather Hodson
I have been hearing about Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath becomes Air, for a while now. I even recall reading his ‘How long have I got left?’ in the New York times when he was still alive and staring down the prospect of terminal illness. Reading this interview with his widow alongside extracts from the book itself has put When Breath becomes Air to the top of my reading list. It’s in my Amazon basket as we speak. Judging by how this article made me feel, I cannot imagine that I will get through it with dry eyes.
I enjoy a lot of what I read on Narrative.ly, but when I read this I felt myself aching at the extreme vulnerability of the writer. It was as if she we were lying naked on the page, which given the subject matter, is even more powerful. Occasionally you read a bright, melancholy story that makes you aware of the vast diversity and similarity of humans. What do she and I have in common? In terms of lifestyle, nothing, but in terms of souls? Maybe a lot. I am keeping an eye on this writer. When she writes a book I will be first in line to buy it.
There isn’t much to say about this story except to say that war is brutal and familial love is unrelenting. It showed me a period of history that had previously been veiled to me.
I have heard of her book. I know what it’s about. Consequently I have avoided reading The Luckiest Girl Alive, worried about what it would do to my mental health. In this article on Lenny, Jessica Knoll does the bravest thing and talks about how her work of fiction in which her protagonist is the victim of a rape is not completely fictional. She talks about the fear and the shame and the worry of being found out. This is what bravery sounds like to me. So now The Luckiest Girl Alive is probably going into my amazon basket too. Because if she can be that brave and I can’t, then I can at least support her in this way.
That’s my reading list from this holiday! Now I am back to work and to writing, filled with the voices of strong and inspirational authors. But as always, I am taking recommendations for my next holiday (or just a bedtime read!) so let me know if you have something great in mind, online or in hard copy. Let’s share the reading love!