Book recommendations for Mental Health Awareness Week

A few novels, comics, and a zine that look at mental health in a variety of ways:

the shock of the fallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (novel)

This book does that thing I find annoying where it hints at Something Bad in the past and doesn’t tell you what it is until the end (though it’s pretty easy to work out early on). However, it’s still worth your time. This is told from the perspective of Matthew, a man with psychosis. Because you are inside his head, it makes those things that seem “weird” or “crazy” to others perfectly understandable. It also talks a lot about the difficulties of being a patient in a mental health system which is underfunded and, at times, dehumanising. Nathan Filer is a mental health nurse, and that experience definitely comes through.

a spot of botherA Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (novel)

This is a funny, enjoyable, easy-read family drama centred around fifty-seven year-old George who has just retired. Among other things, George develops quite severe health anxiety, though does his best to hide it from the rest of his family. Because you see it from George’s point of view, it’s easier to understand why he does something rather extreme that just looks out of the blue and “crazy” to the rest of his family who haven’t seen how he got there. (Note: As I read this a very long time ago I can’t remember how it ends, so I can’t be sure how good a representation of anxiety/health anxiety it is, but I remember it being an enjoyable read).

an untamed stateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay (novel)

Mireille is kidnapped, held hostage, and repeatedly raped (so trigger warnings for graphic sexual violence for this one). What’s really good about this novel is that it doesn’t end on the ‘rescue’ being a neat and happy ending, but shows the aftermath of trauma and sexual violence. It also shows how difficult it can be for people around the person to know how best to help them, but, importantly, that it’s not that person’s job to teach them as they’re using everything they’ve got just to hold themself together. I do remember thinking the end was a bit too neat and a few of the characters a little one-dimensional, but that it was a fast-paced and important book, particularly about PTSD.

the vegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. by Deborah Smith) (novel, Korean in translation)

Unlike the previous novels in the list, you never hear from the central character, Yeong-hye, in this book – you are put in the position of the characters around her who are unwilling or unable to truly hear or understand her. As a result, it’s never quite clear what’s happening for Yeong-hye, but she essentially turns away from ‘normal’ living, trying to become one with the nature around her by taking control of what she eats and her body. Is it about taking control of her body for herself, regardless of what that may mean for her life? Or is it more about a kind of self-destruction in reaction to the world in which she lives? Perhaps it’s a little of both.

esme lennoxThe Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (novel)

In the 1930s, Esme is too outspoken and too unconventional and is committed to an asylum where she lives, without visitors, for 60 years, after her sister Kitty admits Esme has hallucinations. In the present, Iris receives a letter that a great-aunt Esme she’d never heard of is due to be released from her psychiatric unit, while Kitty is in a residential home with Alzheimer’s. This is another one I haven’t read in a very long time, but I remember it being beautifully written and paced, with the kind of open, but not really, ending I like. As well as about mental health generally, it’s also about the way behaviour can be pathologised because it doesn’t meet societal norms and expectations, particularly for women.

hyperbold and a halfHyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh (comics, non-fiction)

You’ve probably seen panels from her comics, with different captions, as memes for all sorts of things. But I urge you to read the original. As well as funny stories about her dogs and from her childhood, a main theme in her work is mental health and depression. This contains one of the most eloquently accurate and bleakly funny descriptions of living with depression I’ve ever seen.

the red treeThe Red Tree by Shaun Tan (graphic novel, fiction)

This picture book is an absolutely beautiful depiction of navigating the world with depression, and finding hope. I think it jumps to the hopeful end a little too quickly, but the book is so good I don’t actually mind that much. I will never get tired of Shaun Tan’s artwork.

everything is teethEverything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (graphic novel, non-fiction)

This is a memoir about some of Evie’s childhood spent visiting family in New South Wales, and her childhood fear of sharks. Evie’s obsession with sharks becomes a safe place for her brother, and for her, to connect with her dad. But it’s also about that anxiety that lies beneath, that follows you everywhere, even if you ‘know’ it’s irrational to be afraid of sharks indoors, in Peckham. It feels very true of childhood anxieties, the big ones, that they are a fascination as well as a fear, and are often a displacement for the big adult fears that you aren’t ready for yet. In this sense it’s a book about growing up, about seeing danger or difficulty, and learning how to cope with that when “everything is teeth” (every part of it can hurt you). But it is more complex than that – as Evie does grow up and learns that even though it can hurt you, it doesn’t mean to.

are you my motherAre You my Mother? by Alison Bechdel (graphic novel, non-fiction)

This is a graphic novel about Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, her own therapy, and psychoanalytic theory. It’s not as accessible, or quite as good, as Fun Home, but if you are interested in psychoanalysis and literature, this is worth a look and beautifully drawn with a muted red colour palette. But if you haven’t experienced therapy yourself, just be aware that most therapy isn’t psychoanalysis and isn’t like this at all, there’s no lying on the couch in the NHS!

do what you wantDo What You Want edited by Leah Pritchard & Ruby Tandoh (non-fiction)

There are no hard copies left of this limited-edition zine about mental health, but you can still get an ebook copy. And you definitely should. It’s a mix of essay, comics, illustration, and recipes that covers a wide range of mental health issues by a wide range of contributors. It’s incredibly good and there will definitely be things in here that resonate deeply.

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April screentime 2017

I mostly watched trash or okay things this month, but there were a couple of awesome films. In the order I watched them:

insurgentInsurgent (2015) film, Netflix

I was feeling ill and needed some trash and this was that trash. Some of the effects are good, but it’s just generic YA dystopian. It did what I expected.

1Sheet_Master.qxdThe Good Wife (seasons 6-7) series, Netflix

The Good Wife definitely peaks with season 5. These final two series were still easy shiny watching, but it loses itself a bit. The overall storyline in terms of the direction of Alicia’s character development makes sense, but the writers don’t pull it off and the ending doesn’t work or have the kind of impact they intended. Even though I know they knew where it was going, it feels like they were lost.

diary of a teenage girlThe Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) film, Netflix

This is brilliant. It’s a sexual coming-of-age that’s funny, emotional, bold, and non-judgemental, even though there are some complex moral questions. Bel Powley is great in the lead role, and Kirsten Wiig is surprisingly good in a non-comic role. Definitely worth a watch (it has 93% on Rotten Tomatoes so you know it’s good), and the best thing I saw this month.

The_fear_of_13The Fear of 13 (2015) documentary, Netflix

This is basically just Nick Yarris, a former deathrow inmate who was proved to be innocent, telling his story. There are no frills, no reenactments, just Nick and occasional cut-aways to prison-type scenes. It works because Nick is a very engaging story-teller, so the stripped-back style fits. But it maybe could have been truly great doc with a bit more general context about deathrow, innocence, and fighting for justice.

the most hated woman in americaThe Most Hated Woman in America (2017) film, Netflix

I was expecting this to be a documentary but it’s actually a biopic of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the American atheist activist who was eventually kidnapped and killed (though surprisingly not for her activism, but related to her embezzlement of her charity’s funds). It’s an average film – not bad but not great either, which is a shame because the story has so much potential.

the neon demonThe Neon Demon (2016) film, Netflix

I have no idea if I liked this or not. It’s beautifully shot and the cinematography and colour is incredible. But at times it feels like it’s try too hard to be “edgy” and doesn’t always make sense within its own universe. I have no idea. Maybe that’s the point?

mad menMad Men (seasons 1-4) series, Netflix

If I hadn’t heard everyone say how good this is, I probably wouldn’t have stuck past series one. Misogynistic men doing misogynistic men things is a story told so many times it’s just boring. But, it does get better as each series goes on, and where there is more focus on the female characters (when they’re not just Interchangeable Secretary Number 3). I don’t give a shit about Don Draper. Give me more Peggy and Joan.

I_Don't_Feel_at_Home_in_This_World_AnymoreI Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore  (2017) film, Netflix

I had this on in the background while I was sorting out my desk drawer of doom, so I was half-watching it which may have affected what I thought but I enjoyed it. Sometimes the pacing was a bit off, and I didn’t always care about what happened, but it was enjoyable enough with some good performances.

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April reads 2017

I’m slowly finding ways of reading more again and I’m so enjoying it. Probably twice as many pages read as last month, but, more importantly, I’m regularly carving out little spaces where I’m not too exhausted. Winner.

do not say we have nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (novel)

This is a novel about the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China in the 1950s to 1980s and the present day (sort of), and I absolutely loved it. I’m not normally a fan of multi-generational historical fiction, particularly fiction that moves between two time periods because I always much prefer one time period over the other, but I equally enjoyed and was invested in, both time periods in this. Neither is written completely linearly but everything weaves together seamlessly. It seems to mirror the symphonies described in the book, with themes repeating and circling back around, while slowly it all comes together. I loved the writing style and the way she writes about language and music and what they can mean to people who deeply love them. I wanted to hug this book.

i hate fairylandI Hate Fairyland vol 1 by Skottie Young (comics, fiction)

I found this just okay and a bit over-hyped. The problem is it’s basically one joke (a middle-aged woman trapped in the body of her six year-old self, having become bitter and extremely violent after being stuck in fairyland for so long, looking kind of cute but violently taking everything she comes across apart) over and over again.

homo deusHomo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari (non-fiction)

This is the follow-up to Sapiens (a brief history of humankind), and offers some possibilities about what the future of humans might look like. It’s not as good as Sapiens, but it’s still really interesting and worth a read. Harari is really good at challenging your basic assumptions, like whether you have a ‘self’ (yes and no) or whether countries exist (not really). I don’t agree with everything he says, but I don’t think he expects you to. As with Sapiens, though he never states them explicitly, Harari’s own view and opinions of the world and humankind comes through strongly. I imagine this annoys some people, but if you approach the whole book as an opinion and a possibility, it fits; after all, it’s impossible to be objective about humans as a group when you are one, and it’s impossible to know the future or even everything in the world in the present. Thought-provoking and interesting – some of the ideas in here are going to stay with me for a long time (particularly who it is that’s making a decision, my experiencing or my narrating self).

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March reads 2017

I only finished two books this month, which is the least I’ve read in a very long time. On Friday evening I considered pushing through my exhaustion to read another one because two ‘wasn’t enough for someone who has a book blog’, then I realised I was being an idiot. I honestly believe in reading on whim, and it’s not the amount but that you want to read and enjoy what you’re reading. But social perceptions still managed to creep in. I knew I’d be reading a lot less this month with a new job so actually I’m pleased I managed to read something.

the handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (novel)

It’s been 15 years since I last read this, and sometimes old favourites don’t remain favourites when you re-read them in a different time / context, but I still absolutely love it (which is good because I have Offred tattooed on me). I particularly like that you see how the society of the novel came to be, which you don’t normally get in most dystopian fiction. And, even though it was written in the 80s and has a number of references to concerns at that time, it has the kind of timeless quality that great fiction has. Atwood is really good at placing her stories within reach of the present (and everything in the book has happened, or is happening, somewhere), and that hasn’t changed, unfortunately given the plot, in the thirty years since.

the things we thought we knewThe Things We Thought We knew by Mahsuda Snaith (novel)

This wasn’t for me. Though I thought the characters and environment were well-drawn, it wasn’t my kind of writing style and I ended up getting annoyed with the representation of someone with chronic pain. Full review here.

Also on the blog this month:

A review of Northern Ballet’s Casanova

Currently reading: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Absolutely loving this so far.

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March screentime 2017

I started a new job this month and I’ve been too knackered in the evenings to do much more than lie back on the sofa and stick the tv on. So, many things watched, very little read (as you’ll see when I do my reading wrap-up…)

moonlightMoonlight (2016) film, cinema

This is one of those films made to be seen in a cinema – the use of light and colour is best on a big screen. I can absolutely see why it won Best Picture; it’s beautifully crafted in the way it is shot and lit, the acting is brilliant, and it has powerful themes of (sexual and general) identity, masculinity, and mother figures and father figures. It’s not a film I would recommend to everyone because, although powerful, it’s purposefully slow and ends in a kind of indefinite way that’s not for everyone, though I liked the end. In the cinema when I saw it, a guy was obviously not enjoying it but, instead of leaving, talked a lot and then shouted “fuck off” when the screen faded to black. I still enjoyed the film, but it did take away some of the atmosphere which is key to Moonlight and ruined it a bit.

loganLogan (2017) film, cinema

I have serious superhero movie fatigue, but I loved this. It was more grounded in character and had a different story arc than most superhero films. And it was genuinely moving in parts. Part of the reason why it works is Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman, and Dafne Keen who plays Laura. I think it could have pushed some of the themes and ideas it brushes over further, and been a truly different, great (superhero) film, but it was easily one of the best superhero films I’ve seen in a long time. More character-driven comics films, please studios.

maidentripMaidentrip (2013) documentary, Netflix

This is a documentary about 14-year-old Laura Dekker’s voyage sailing around the world alone. I liked that it mostly concentrated on the trip and the sailing itself, and didn’t focus on the controversy around it – it was just about what it was like to spend two years sailing and exploring alone as a teenager. It could have done with a bit more depth in that regard, but as a quiet coming-of-age doc it was enjoyable enough.

the people vs oj simpson.jpgThe People vs OJ Simpson (2016) series, Netflix

I vaguely knew about the OJ trial as it has become a cultural reference point, but I didn’t really know any specifics about it. So I can’t say how close to the truth this fictionalised drama or the portrayals of real people are, but it’s still fascinating to watch. It’s the combination of systemic racism, gender, the media coverage, the profile of the people involved, mistakes in the trial, and what it has become in culture since. I know the non-fiction doc won best feature at the Oscars this year, and I’m interested to see what the differences are (and to see the film that beat Ava DuVernay’s 13th, which is the best documentary I think I’ve ever seen).

the skeleton twinsThe Skeleton Twins (2014) film, Netflix

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are great in this as estranged fraternal twins, but the film was just okay. It didn’t really stay with me in any way even though it’s the kind of film I should have loved. There are some good moments and scenes, but overall it didn’t do enough in a new or different way to do much for me.

the white helmets.jpgThe White Helmets (2016) documentary, Netflix

This short doc follows the White Helmets – volunteer rescuers in Syria who help people out of bombed buildings. It shows you what it’s like, day-to-day, to live and work and worry about loved ones in a war zone. Obviously it’s grim, but there is hope, both in the White Helmets themselves and in the symbols of rescues like the tiny ‘miracle baby’ found alive after nearly a day in the rubble. Worth a watch.

the overnightersThe Overnighters (2014) documentary, Netflix

When a pastor allows the huge and growing numbers of homeless people, some of whom have criminal pasts, seeking work in the area to stay at the church and his home, it creates divisions and controversy in the local community. What makes this doc great is that it doesn’t set the pastor up as a saint against ‘evil’ townspeople, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. And, as it goes on, we see an increasingly complex picture of the pastor himself.

1Sheet_Master.qxdThe Good Wife (seasons 1 – 5) series, Netflix

When I’ve been tired, this has been what I’ve reached for, so I’ve watched a shit-ton of The Good Wife this month. It’s easy, self-contained ‘legal mysteries’ in each episode with an overarching plot, and crime is often my go-to easy-watch TV. Season 5 has been properly good, but I’ve heard the next two seasons go downhill a bit. Shiny easy fluff that’s perfect for what I need right now.

get out.jpgGet Out (2017) film, cinema

I love smart horror, and this is it. The twists are all pretty obvious, so it’s not shocking or terrifying in that sense, but it’s still really enjoyable. It takes the more covert kinds of racism and appropriation from white people who “couldn’t possibly be racist because they like Obama” and then stretches it into more traditional horror tropes. Really worth watching.


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The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

the things we thought we knewRavine is eighteen years old and has been in bed for the past ten years with chronic pain. Her mum cares for her and tries to keep pushing her forward, but Ravine feels stuck and hopeless. Ten years ago, Ravine had a best friend, Marianne, she did everything with. But then Marianne disappeared…

This isn’t a book for me. The writing style had a few beautiful moments but was mostly just okay. Throughout the book it also teases about Something Happening in the past with a reveal at the end, which is a pretty common ‘page-turning’ device that wasn’t done in an interesting or new way, so it was just kind of annoying (aside: the structure of All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld is probably the best take I’ve seen on this). I did like the way she wrote about the council estate and the community there, and many of her characters are richly drawn and engaging.

The reason I requested this from the publisher is that the main character has chronic pain. Chronic, invisible, illnesses are so rarely represented in literature, particularly within main characters, and I’m always keen to find good representation (I don’t have chronic pain but have other health shenanigans). This started well. The way Snaith described living with chronic pain/illness as a kind of living deathbed (‘lifebed’) felt spot on-

Imagine sinking into your bed every day for nearly eleven years. You wake up. You go to the toilet. You collapse back into bed and sail off. Except you don’t sail anywhere because some bastard has moored you to a pole. You float in your sea of pain, hoping someone will come and hack the rope to pieces and set you free. They never do.

But then, very early in the book, she spontaneously recovers. Completely. For some people, chronic pain or illness is related to psychological trauma (there is less of a Cartesian split between mind and body than many, including medicine, think), and this seems to be the case for Ravine and I don’t have an issue with that. But she hadn’t faced or worked through her trauma in any way before it had an effect on her pain; she just thought about maybe writing about what happened, and then went from excruciating pain most of the day to absolutely nothing, before she’d even written/thought through it. It doesn’t make any sense. It made Ravine’s chronic pain feel like an ill-thought-out plot device to place her where she needed to be physically, and as a lazily done ‘physical pain representing mental pain’. In fact I read somewhere that Snaith had originally planned for Ravine to be in coma, but it didn’t work so replaced the coma with pain. I think she must have done some research / spoken to someone with chronic illness to describe it well early on, but then either ignored it or didn’t go further in order to make her plot points work. It’s kind of disappointing.

A book that probably wouldn’t be completely my thing anyway, but that also doesn’t represent chronic pain all that well in the end. Two stars.

The Things We Thought We Knew is out on 15th June 2017.

I received a free copy from Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.

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Casanova – the ballet

casanova-1.jpgAs I’ve said before I love Northern Ballet because they’re such good storytellers, and Casanova was no exception.

Based on Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova, Kenneth Tindall (an ex-Northern Ballet dancer) created his very first full-length piece that moves from his time in the church, to his many benefactors and lovers, to Casanova as a musician, writer and thinker. I liked that it ended with his whole life and his writing as his legacy, not just his labido, because he did live such a fascinating and varied life.

The choreography was fluid and sensual. Tindall created some really interesting shapes with the corps, and the various sex scenes were just so creative and beautiful and seductive and a real highlight. I always think the mess of sex and violence work really well in an art form as formal and controlled as ballet, and this was probably the best I’ve seen in that respect. I love a pas de deux, and each in this had its own character and feel. I particularly liked the one with Bellino where they gradually learn to trust each other and the way she reveals who she is, and the contrast with Casanova and Henriette which was much more tender and careful.

This is probably the most visually stunning ballet I’ve ever seen. I don’t normally notice lighting, but it really stood out for me in this piece. Designed by Alastair West, it perfectly captured different moods and settings, and was used to great effect to highlight scenes happening at the same time and the violence of Bragadin’s stroke. It also worked so well with the set, especially the tall mirror-pillars in the second half. The set design by Christopher Oram was brilliant, as were his incredible and colourful costumes.

The one thing I think it needed was a little more time with Henriette. Her relationship with Casanova didn’t feel any more significant than Bellino’s or Balletti’s, so Casanova’s response to her leaving didn’t have as much impact as it could have done. But I suspect that’s a result of trying to squeeze a huge amount into two hours.

The run has finished in Leeds, but it’s now on tour for a couple of months – find out where here and definitely catch it while you can. Sensual, stunning, and colourful – you ain’t seen ballet til you’ve seen Venetian orgy ballet. Hot damn.

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