“Notes On A Nervous Planet” by Matt Haig (2018)

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“I was stressed out.”

The world is moving ever faster and sometimes it feels like a struggle just to hold on. With the constant bombardment of adverts, breaking news, tweets, social media updates and fear-mongering by anyone with Internet access, it’s no wonder that rates of anxiety, depression and mental malaise seem to have risen so sharply. Fortunately, there are people who are trying to make sense of it all and give us a way to speak out about it. Matt Haig is one of the best.

A couple of years ago, Haig published Reasons to Stay Alive, a frank and moving book about his own struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and suicide. Its success was instant and profound. People across the world thanked him for his words and putting to paper the feelings they’d been struggling to articulate, as well as giving his own tips on how to improve things – or rather, showing us how he did it. He is at pains to insist he isn’t a psychological expert by any means, and his advice is merely based on things he has experienced, but sometimes that’s just a good start.

Notes on a Nervous Planet is the wonderful sequel, this time focusing more on the speed of progress in the world, how the world seems to be working to keep us miserable and anxious (happy people don’t spend money), and how best to cope with things like Twitter and Instagram. We can all make changes to our lives that might alleviate some of the worst problems.

The advice is often simple, or at least appears so: charge your mobile phone outside of your bedroom; don’t stay on Twitter if you’re not enjoying it anymore; read more often; do yoga; go outside more often. Nonetheless, I feel that it all helps. As someone who has had his own issues with anxiety and depression in recent years, it was refreshing to read via Haig’s wonderful prose that I’m not alone. It’s also important to have people talking about these things, as the more we talk about mental health, the more likely the attached stigma will drop away. It’s particularly important, I feel, to have a man talk about it. I appreciate that we live in a world that seems to assume “straight, white male” is the default and people are bored to listening to them, but generally men are told not to express their feelings and to “be strong” all the time. Robert Webb covered this in his memoirs too. This stuff needs to be said – everyone is allowed to cry, and everyone is allowed to feel.

Haig’s book is short but full of profound and charming, lyrical sentences, as well as common sense advice. It’s also raw in places, as he recounts panic attacks and times when he thought he couldn’t carry on. I, for one, am enormously pleased he has, as he’s written some of my favourite books in recent years, including The Humans and How To Stop Time.

Brilliant, beautiful, wise, and important.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams (1979)

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Don’t Panic.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

I always try to start the year with something I’m going to enjoy, be that something optimistic, magical, or heartwarming. Given the mess that 2017 had left me – and most of us, to be honest – in, I was taking no chances. It was time to dip back into the works of one of the greatest writers ever.

This is the story of Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has woken up on a Thursday morning with a terrible hangover to find a series of bulldozers in his garden, filled with workmen who want to demolish his house. Arthur does his best to halt them by laying down in the mud, but his plans are foiled by the arrival of his best friend Ford Prefect, who demands they go to the pub. Once there, Ford reveals that he’s not from Guildford, but actually from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the world is going to end in about twelve minutes. Making sure Arthur knows where his towel is, Ford hitchhikes off the planet and onto one of the Vogon ships now orbiting the Earth, seconds before the whole planet is wiped from existence.

Now entirely homeless, Arthur is given a crash course in interplanetary travel as he finds himself in some very odd company: Zaphod Beeblebrox, the psychopathic and two-headed President of the Galaxy; Marvin, the manically depressed robot; Trillian, a fellow human who he once met at a party and entirely failed to get off with; and Slartibartfast, whose name doesn’t actually matter. Zaphod drags the team along on the hunt of the legendary planet of Magrathea, in search of the answer to the Ultimate Question – the answer to life, the universe, and everything…

Douglas Adams had that perfectly magical skill of making brilliantly complicated concepts and plots seem easy. He was infamous for his inability to meet deadlines (he always said he enjoyed the whooshing sound they made as they passed by) but thank god he buckled down for long enough to give us this book, and the rest of the series. The writing is superbly tight, funny on every page, and yet also somehow all a little bit terrifying. The technology may be bizarre, and the aliens may be unusual, but broadly speaking the themes are very familiar. Above them all, though, sits the question, “What is it all about?” Much of the second half of the book focuses on answering the meaning of life, and the answer we get, now famous throughout our world, is pleasingly mental, and yet tantalisingly indecipherable. I think I agree with Slartibartfast’s assessment of the whole thing: “I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied.”

Adams is also legitimately one of the funniest writers we were ever lucky enough to have. From his excellent, surrealist metaphors (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), and his comments about the nature of beauty and wonder (“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”), to his attempts to explain the universe in simple terms (“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”), there’s not a single joke that falls flat here, nor any wording that seems out of place. His creations too, such as the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drive, beautifully and simply solve typical narrative problems of the genre with pure madness, and yet they’re so good you don’t pause to question them. Never stop to think too hard about an Adams’ novel. They make sense, but only if you’re totally on board.

I already can’t wait to get back into the remaining four books in the wildly misnamed trilogy.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

“A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby (2005)

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“Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block?”

Suicide still seems to be one of the most taboo subjects in the Western world. Death is rarely something any of us want to think of, and many of us are upset, perhaps outraged, by the concept of someone taking their own life. Most, if not all, religions look upon it as a grave sin, and there are organisations dedicated to preventing people from doing it. I’ve, fortunately, never been in a position where I felt that death was the only option, so I can offer no explanation for how these people feel or what drives them to the edge, sometimes literally. In my first foray into a Nick Hornby novel, he dips his toe into the world of the suicidal and tries to shed some light on it all.

Martin Sharp doesn’t think he has anything left to live for. After sleeping with an underage girl, he’s done time in prison and is now dealing with no contact with his children, no career prospects, and no hope. On New Year’s Eve he makes his way to the roof of Topper’s House, a popular suicide spot in north London. However, while contemplating the leap, he finds himself joined by three other would-be jumpers: Maureen, a single mother struggling to cope with the prospect of another year with her disabled son, Jess, who is eighteen and only wanted an explanation from her ex-boyfriend as to why he left her, and JJ, an American whose dreams have not come true and he’s not a world-famous musician.

Unable and unwilling to jump with an audience, Martin comes away from the ledge and the four eat the pizza JJ was delivering to the building and then descend through the building to a party to find Jess’s ex. The four vastly different people are soon bound by this one act, and when the press hunt them down and start asking questions, they find themselves united and lying to the country about what really happened on the roof. As time goes on and their friendships develop, they begin to see that maybe death isn’t the answer. Maybe they were just asking the wrong questions.

The most incredible character of the novel is, in my opinion, Maureen. She has a son who is trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move or communicate, and she has dedicated her life to him, sacrificing any joy from her life to take care of him. Her life is tragic in the extreme. She is incredibly isolated and generally unaware of anything that’s happened in the outside world for about twenty years. You can see fully why she would want to end it, but are heartbroken by the fact that she thinks that’s the only option. She is as trapped as her son, and her passages are the most poignant and wonderful. She was my favourite character by a long way, if only because I wanted to help rescue her.

The narration shifts around between the four characters, and Hornby does a brilliant job of making them all sound so distinct. Maureen bleeps out her swear words, Jess doesn’t use correct punctuation and her sentences run on, and JJ uses Americanisms throughout. I like the other three characters just fine too, but they are all less sympathetic than Maureen. Jess seems like a typical angst-ridden teenager but we learn more about exactly who she is and what happened to her to get her in this position. JJ has the least reason to jump, almost seeming to find himself at Topper’s House on a whim, so he at first lies about his reason for wanting to end it all. Martin is arrogant and foolish, but he’s also rather self aware and his character does undergo some development throughout the novel, showing he is capable of learning from mistakes, even if he doesn’t always follow the lesson fully.

In another novel, maybe some of the things that happen to them would seem far-fetched, but here they seem to work. People bond in difficult times in strange ways, so I took it that it had to take something extraordinary to bring these people together, but once they were, everything they did seemed normal. There’s no reason these four should ever have met otherwise, but I think life generally throws us in the path of the people we need most.

A couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but generally not as funny as billed, however that’s not really a complaint. It’s very wise and thoughtful and really rather beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

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“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

“Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain” by Barney Norris (2016)

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five-rivers“Long before the steep trickle of the Channel widened to make an island of England, before the first settlers arrived and started claiming the land around, laying down tree trunks to make pathways through marshes from ridgeway to mountain to hill, something unusual happened in the green south of Wiltshire.”

Every so often you stumble across a book that feels particularly special. All the truths of the world are hidden in the lies of novels, and Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain has done something really rather wonderful. I’ll get my bitterness over the fact that the author, Barney Norris, is only a year older than me and wildly more successful and talented out of the way as quickly as possible and on we go with the review.

Set in the beautiful city of Salisbury and its picturesque surroundings, Five Rivers… brings together the overlapping stories of five residents. Rita is the wrong side of sixty, selling flowers in the market by day and dealing drugs by night. Sam has just turned sixteen and is dealing with the hormonal headache that comes from falling in love for the first time. George has just been widowed from his wife of fifty years and doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s meant to happen next. Alison is a desperately lonely middle-aged woman, left alone for weeks on end with a son at boarding school and a husband serving in Afghanistan. And Liam is a security guard, running  away from his problems and finding himself back where he began. A car crash brings the five together and their lives loop around one another, bringing to the surface feelings that they’ve tried hard to hide.

Despite his relatively young age, Norris slips into the roles of his five narrators like a man trying on a series of tailor-made suits on Savile Row. He inhabits the role of the nervous, awkward Sam as naturally he does the older woman Rita. His style is mesmerising, and each character leaps off the page as a complete individual, despite us few if any clues as to their physical appearances. It doesn’t matter though, because they feel plenty real enough.

Norris has tapped into something utterly remarkable here, and frequently I found myself having to stop for a while, tears threatening to expose themselves, as he reveals yet another painful truth about the world. As Sam himself notes, “It’s so strange when a song or a story can […] put your own feelings into words as if you’d hidden them there yourself”. The text is full of emotions and thoughts that have definitely occurred to me, but I’ve never been able to get them out quite right. Some writer I am, huh. Norris makes it look easy. Sam’s chapter is the one I had particular difficulty in dealing with, as I saw a lot of myself in him, right down to some painfully specific details.

While the book contains all sorts of themes on the smallness of the world, how to find happiness, and how to decide what really matters in life, there are two overwhelming themes for me. The first is the relationship between parents and their children, in particular that of mothers and sons. Most of the characters have issues in this field, and we explore them from different angles. Sam has lived in a quiet house where he and his parents have never spoken about anything “important”. Alison feels herself drifting from her teenage son and wonders if she’ll ever be able to be friends with him. Liam’s parents are moving on with their lives and starting again in their fifties, leaving him feeling lost. The strongest theme is, however, loneliness. Despite being cripplingly afraid of loneliness myself, I seem to keep finding books about it and almost without fail falling in love with them. Each of the five main characters is lonely in one way or another, either cut off from their family, or unable to open up, or feeling isolated and trapped. So many of us plod on through life, but how many of us are actually happy with what has happened to us?

A deeply beautiful book from an author who I shall be keeping an eye on, because I think this could be the start of a very promising literary career.

My novel contains much less in the way of beautiful, worldly truths, but instead fills Salisbury with bickering gods and an ancient cannibal. Get hold of The Atomic Blood-stained Bus on Amazon if you like that sort of thing.

“Reasons To Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (2015)

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reasons“Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen.”

Mental illness still carries something of a stigma in our society. Perhaps because the effects are not immediately so obvious than they are with, say, a broken leg or a third degree burn, some people are still inclined to think that they aren’t real. However, depression, anxiety and the whole plethora of mental conditions available to humanity are incredibly real, particularly for those suffering from them.

I’m never going to be so arrogant as to assume I know what it’s like to suffer from a mental illness. I’ve brushed up against something that may have been depression, and if I was to qualify whatever issues I have now, I’d say it’s something akin to anxiety, but I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything so I’m always wary to use the terms and claim myself to be something I’m not. Nonetheless, much as you don’t need to be a woman to read Animal, you don’t need to have depression to read Reasons to Stay Alive.

Matt Haig is an man who I feel I know better than I do. I’ve only actually read one of his novels so far, The Humans, but adored it beyond measure. I think following him on Twitter does a lot for feeling I know him, and indeed this book does too. His other novels are now on my Amazon wishlist. In this book, Haig talks about his struggle with depression. One day, while he and his then-girlfriend Andrea were living and working in Ibiza, he quite suddenly collapsed into a pit of despair that he was entirely unable to climb out of. The book meanders through his life story as he details his childhood, his depression and his recovery, because recover he does.

Haig knows that depression is not forever, and while maybe it can never go away for good, it can be fought, and it can be controlled. His words are, frankly, beautiful. His writing is so raw and honest, and you can’t but love him and wish him well. You’re so proud of him. And you’re so proud of everyone who has struggled with the Black Dog, who has fought through this storm, and come out the other side a more resilient person. Amongst some very private personal details, Haig also fills us in on the primary symptoms of depression and anxiety, deals with famous people who have suffered from it and shown how it doesn’t have to debilitate you – Buzz Aldrin, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana and Stephen Fry all suffer or suffered from mental illnesses, to name five, and our culture reveres them all – as well as listing off a general collection of helpful pieces of advice that can make things more bearable.

He also deals with the important issue of being a man with depression. It might not feel like there needs to be a distinction made between men and women on this front, but he points out that while more women are diagnosed with depression, more men commit suicide, which is strongly linked to having depression. Why is this? Although he doesn’t go into it in much detail, it is suggested that this is because society expects men to be tough. “Boys don’t cry” as the old saying goes. Utter rubbish. Toxic masculinity seems to force men to keep their true feelings inside as to show that you’re struggling is to show a weakness, and men must not be weak. Sexism does damage in both directions.

I have little to say about this book that hasn’t already been said by other people. Joanna Lumley called it “a small masterpiece that might even save lives”; the Rev Richard Coles declared it “should be on prescription”. Jo Brand, Stephen Fry, Michael Palin, S J Watson and Simon Mayo all give it great reviews, and I’m inclined to trust and agree with the lot of them. It’s not often a book lives up to the hype, but this one certainly does.

Matt Haig has done something wonderful, and I would encourage everyone to read this and remind themselves that while life might get tough at times – Lord knows mine has been a struggle this week – there are plenty of reasons to stay alive.

“The Making Of Us” by Lisa Jewell (2011)

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making of us“Glenys Pike was thirty-five years old.”

I’ve always considered myself lucky to have such a close family. Oh sure, we argue and bicker, but I know that when the chips are down, they’ll be there for me, and I for them. To imagine life without a close family is strange to me. But this is one of the issues in Lisa Jewell’s The Making of Us. It’s been a few years since I read Jewell, but I’m a big fan of hers, and I’ve got a bit behind on her output. It was time to sort that out.

This is the story of Lydia, a self-made millionaire who lives alone in an enormous London mansion and is struggling with life now her best friend has had a child. Lydia has no one, her parents are both long dead, and she feels herself drifting from her friend. This is also the story of Robyn, a street-smart, uber-confident girl who has just turned eighteen and her life is completely and utterly perfect in every possible way, down to the fact that she’s just met the man of her dreams. This is also the story of Dean, a young man who has suddenly been thrust into fatherhood when his daughter is born prematurely and his girlfriend dies in childbirth. Unable to cope with the situation, he runs.

These three don’t know each other, but the world soon conspires to bring them together. It turns out that each of them shares something huge – they are all the progeny of the same sperm donor. He, Daniel, is in a hospice, dying of cancer, and calls upon his friend Maggie to help in in his final hours. Daniel wants to meet his children.

Each chapter gives us the point of view of a different character – usually Lydia, Robyn, Dean or Maggie – and allows us into their version of the world. Jewell captures the struggle of loneliness well, and her characters are all wonderfully distinct. She notes in the back of the book that she enjoyed writing this one, and it shows. Jewell is excellent at setting her stories so intensely in the real world that we feel that these people might be living just down the road from us. They certainly feel real.

But this is a heartbreaking book, too, a study in the ways our lives can go wrong and what we can do to fix them again. It’s about how all families are different, but they’re all extraordinary. Jewell ties everything up nicely, and the one potentially contrived plot point I was worried was coming didn’t (although it turned into something much sadder), and the book ends on a note of hope, that these characters are going to be OK. And that’s good, I want them to be.

I think my favourite character is Dean. There’s something sweet about him, even if he does run out on his daughter. He’s not perfect, but he’s young and scared, and he needs more of an anchor in his life. He never had a father, and his mother doesn’t seem interested in helping him get on with his life particularly, so he needs a family more than the rest, I think. Robyn is my least favourite narrator, but she’s not without charm. I just think she’d irritate me if I met her, since she appears intensely self-absorbed.

Once again, I am reminded that Jewell’s name is very apt – she is a diamond. She can take the everyday lives of people and make them interesting, allowing them to sparkle and shine. It’s an interesting book, and like many stories, there are sections that are better than others, overall it’s brilliant; very moving and very positive.

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