Posted in general and welcome, Popsugar Reading Challenge 2016

Reasons to Stay Alive – the first book you see in a bookshop

Today’s post is on the third book I’ve read as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2016 – the First Book You See in a BookShop – Matt Haig’s highly praised Reasons to Stay Alive.

I saw this piled high in Oxford’s Waterstones, piled high up and occupying an entire display window for the first week or so in January. An appropriate time, I’m sure, as people struggle in the doldrums after the highs of Christmas, the parties, the excitement and the anticipation. January is always a depressing month – dark, insolvent, and full of Stoic promises to eat less, drink less, exercise more and become holier-than-thou. People manage it for a few days, or even a week or two, but then give in and feel guity.

The thing about depression is that it’s not a temporary sadness or that well-known ‘let-down’ feeling after excitement. It’s a persistent state that often feels as if it physically occupies both body and mind. A kind of heavy weight or ball and chain that follows you wherever you go. Haig’s book conveys this well, and reading his observations about it felt familiar and comforting … at first. It was such a relief to read that someone else had felt emotions that non-depressed people might think are atypical of the disease (and it is a disease, or condition, not just a temporary state of mind). One that particularly resonated was a strange feeling of detachment from everyday life – you’re not necessarily crying your eyes out or tearing your hair out or acting hysterically. Sometimes you just sit there observing the world though a distorted lens. You’re calm, unreactive even. You make up a system of logic that makes sense to you even though others think it’s crazy.

Unfortunately I’m one of the one in five adults in the UK who is affected by depression. It’s been a near lifelong struggle and I’ve now found ways to cope. Like Matt Haig, exercise does marvellous things, as does any activity that occupies the mind entirely. Puzzles and games on my iPad are brilliant, but I also enjoy anything that really makes me think. Of course, losing myself in a brilliant book is fantastic therapy ;-). It stops the gremlins from creeping in, and the doubts.

However, I am also taking ‘happy pills’ and will be for the rest of my life. This is where Haig and I differ. He explains that part of his illness was a fear of taking any medicines at all, after taking valium and experiencing strange, disconnected panic attacks on them. He pulled himself out of the worst of his depressive state without chemical help and continues along that pathway. He is sceptical about the belief that depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance – which is my diagnosis from several GPs, every time I try to wean myself off the SSRIs and fall back into that dark place. So we have to beg to differ there. As my GP reassured me – “If you had diabetes and had to take insulin to live well and healthily you wouldn’t feel guilty for taking medicine. So why do so for depression? It’s just another illness.” I guess it’s a case of finding whatever works for you, and not feeling guilty in the process.

Haig’s book interweaves his own experience of the ‘black dog’ with lists and musings on depression generally. His main experience harks back to a stay in Ibiza where he woke up one morning, apparently out of the blue, feeling like he couldn’t go on. He nearly walked off a cliff to end that feeling but had the presence of mind, or perhaps fear, to stop himself. I found myself wondering if there had been other warning signs though. Depression tends to cement itself in place gradually rather than immediately.

I’d kind of hoped for a more of a memoir-approach to his experience. The jumping between personal episodes and summaries of NHS-listed symptoms of depression made it hard to relate to his own situation. I can look up what the symptoms, the ‘cures’ and ‘what not to say to a depressed person’ on the internet. I bought Haig’s book to understand his perspective.

I can see that this book would be helpful for people supporting loved ones or friends with depression. It gives you everything you need to know about the condition in one little volume and the personal anecdotes really support what Haig is saying about how hard it is to pull yourself out of such a deep, dark hole. I had a mixed reaction while reading it as a fellow-sufferer (I hate that word!). At first, I wanted to recommend it to everyone I knew who had at any time been depressed. Midway through, I started to actually sink into that sad place, psychosomatically I am sure. I wondered if reading about someone else’s depression was actually beneficial. By the end, I adopted a path midway between the two.

In the past, no one admitted to having depression. It was seen at best as a weakness or at worst a dangerous thing. Nowadays, it’s losing its stigma, though I worry that it is in danger of becoming parodied because it is the celebrity malady du jour. Not because of Haig’s or his book, I hasten to add. Reasons to Stay Alive is open and honest and will benefit many who, perhaps, struggle to come to terms with their own depression or that of someone else.

I’d love to hear other people’s reactions to the book – or any others they have read on this subject.



Posted in general and welcome, Popsugar Reading Challenge 2016, Young Adult

Forever – a book you can finish in a day

The latest instalment in the Popsugar Reading Challenge is A Book You Can Finish in a Day. My choice for this was Judy Blume’s Forever.,204,203,200_.jpg

When I was a pre-teen, I rapidly read my way through all of Judy Blume’s books but this one passed me by. Probably just as well as I would have been a little too young for its contents, which I think are more suited for girls aged 14+ (although a quick look on the internet shows that others my age who read Forever did so when they were 13, with copies hidden under pillows, away from parental discovery).

Forever has courted controversy every since it was first published in 1975, as it deals, frankly, with teenage sexuality generally and, more specifically, with a young woman’s first sexual encounter. There is not much plot beyond what happens between Katherine and her boyfriend Michael as their relationship develops from simple dating to a full-blown physical relationship – but that is the exact point of  the novel. It takes an honest approach to showing how a responsible young adult approaches sex, and Katherine is a good role model for girls in this respect – she doesn’t allow her boyfriend Michael to pressure her into anything she’s not comfortable with. She also takes responsibility for her contraceptive choices, travelling into New York to attend a special sexual health clinic for teenagers. Katherine is an empowered female making important decisions about her own body, away from parental concerns and peer pressure. Katherine’s body is her own and she doesn’t need permission from anybody about what she should do with it.

Additionally, her parents are pretty cool about boyfriends, and she has a very modern grandmother, who sends her leaflets on safe sex in the post (bear in mind, again, that this was the mid-1970s). This shows a forward-thinking family, who don’t try to scare a girl into celibacy or making her feel bad or disgusting for having sexual thoughts and needs. Blume stated that, growing up in the 1950s, she was told that there were two groups of girls – nice and naughty. No prizes for guessing which girls were the ones who participated in, and enjoyed, sex…

In a country that still has difficulty with teenage sexual emancipation, this book has constantly faced the censors’ wrath. Not only does it show sex as a normal, natural thing for teens to want to engage in, she shows how they can take responsibility for their own bodies, without deferring to parental permission. Schools and public libraries in some areas of the USA have fought to have Forever banned because of its honest look at sexuality (including an early portrayal of a boy’s struggle with latent homosexuality). Blume first published the book during the sexual revolution of the Seventies, which explains the enlightened attitudes of Katherine’s mother and grandmother. One might imagine, or expect, that things would have moved on since then but Blume thinks otherwise, stating that religious fundamentalism has grown in power since the 1980s, as she revealed in an interview in the Guardian:

“The 70s was a much more open decade in America… Forever was used in several school programmes then, helping to spur discussions of sexual responsibility. This would never happen today. How are young people supposed to make thoughtful decisions if they don’t have information and no one is willing to talk with them? Girls and boys have to learn to say ‘no’ or ‘not without a condom’ without fear. I hear from too many young people who give in because they’re afraid if they don’t, their partner will find someone else.”

Interestingly, Forever doesn’t seem to have dated much and that is because the issues central to the story are perennial teenage concerns. And Judy Blume has a gift for portraying these sensitively, in a voice that her readers immediately identify with. She is informative yet reassuring, like the cool aunt you want to share your problems with, who you know will understand what you’re feeling and who won’t judge you.

Forever isn’t a long book which is why I got through it so quickly. But I think it’s a very important novel for girls in particular – from around 14 years upwards. It’s quite amazing, really, that this book will have informed a generation of females (my generation) in the 1970s and 1980s, and that it is still relevant to their children nowadays, and probably beyond.

Have you read any Judy Blume books? Which are your favourites?


Posted in general and welcome, Popsugar Reading Challenge 2016

Winnie the Pooh – a book that is guaranteed to bring joy

The second book of the Popsugar Challenge that I have completed is Winnie the Pooh and I thought I would classify it as my entry for ‘A Book That is Guaranteed to Bring You Joy’.

The last time I read this book, or at least part of it, must have been with Holly. However, I have stronger memories of hearing Alan Bennett’s soothing voice narrating it, as it was Holly’s favourite audiobook to fall asleep to. At the time, I could almost time it when Jane Horrock’s squealy Piglet would erupt, always surprising me despite its familiarity.

As soon as I embarked on it, I was back in the Hundred Acres Wood and could envisage the animals as they trundled from one adventure to the next. One of my favourite episodes must be when Pooh gets stuck in Rabbit’s doorway because he’s eaten too much. His top half hangs outside, while his bottom half comes in handy as a towel airer for Rabbit. Sensible Christopher Robin knows what must be done – ‘We shall have to wait for you to get thin again’. To Pooh’s dismay, he must diet for a week until his body is slender enough to be pulled, rather undignifiedly, out. Anyone who has ever got stuck in a pair of jeans will sympathise with his predicament, I am sure. Ahem.

And the time when Pooh and Piglet walk in circles hunting a Woozle always elicits more than a chuckle as the two are convinced that more Woozles and possible a Wizzle are now following them, totally unaware that they’re creating the prints themselves.

Equally delightful are Pooh’s spontaneous yet still thoughtful poems. We have ‘The Anxious Pooh Song’ in which the worried animal becomes a hero through an act of bravery (saving Piglet from the floods), and ‘Sing Ho! For the Life of a Bear!’ in which Pooh teaches all of us about how to find joy in the simplest of things (for him, it’s having lots of honey in his house and on his nice clean paws). ‘Cottleston Pie’ is another favourite – a beautiful train-like rhythm running through it.

AA Milne’s interesting use of initial capital letters on words was fascinating to rediscover, having seen it frequently nowadays in children’s books and comedic writing to suggest irony or humorous emphasis:

‘As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was going to happen… and he spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.’

And of course who could not love the title ‘A Bear of Very Little Brain’? (Even though I disagree with this statement!)

When I told the children at school that it would have been AA Milne’s 134th birthday on 18 January they were amazed at the age, and intrigued about how to pronounce Milne. However, many children (particularly boys) were very grumpy about me reading from Winnie the Pooh, declaring a vehement hatred for the bear. I nearly fainted, of course. Who could not love this gentle creature?

Upon further discussion it appeared that many had been subjected to endless reruns of Disney’s version of the books, of short episodes on terrestrial television which are rather saccarine. They hadn’t read the original story, or had it read to them, so they were unfamiliar with Milne’s gently comedic style.

Interestingly, I discovered their distate was due to their age. Having just ‘graduated’ from quite simple picture books, they thought I was insulting their intelligence by showing them a ‘baby’ book. Some of them used the word ‘baby’ to describe the average reader while others said Pooh Bear was an idiot for doing things like falling into water (I restrained from pointing out that plenty of children did that and worse on a daily basis).

When I read them some of the poems, and got them joining in, they grudgingly showed interest, and when I talked to them about Pooh’s and Piglet’s quest to find a Woozle (and possibly a Wizzle) they were desperate to hear the outcome (by this time, the session had finished and they were left on a cliffhanger – we would have had time to finish had they not moaned so much about listening to the stories in the first place!).

I hope I have helped them reconsider their opinions on one of the world’s most-loved bears. I enjoyed the book so much that I have purchased the second book – The House at Pooh Corner. If you are looking for a book that will bring you joy, I can hardly recommend a better one. Even writing this makes me smile. 🙂

Have you read Winnie the Pooh? What are your thoughts?

What book would YOU choose that would be guaranteed to bring you joy?