Making Your House as Chill as the Person You Wish You Could Be

I’ve been away a long time. Since my last post, my summer has consisted of living this alternate life in Norfolk where I was working 5 days a week in a little seaside cafe where the rest of the world doesn’t exist. I would get up every day, cycle half an hour in the morning across the countryside, do the days work, cycle home, be fed and then go to bed. Compared to the nonsense of university life, it was so structured, so routine. I got into a rhythm and I felt like I was having this weird flash-forward into what my working future life holds. While I was there, the regularity and separateness of it all felt super stabilising. But as soon as I was on a train out of Norfolk back to Sussex, the doom set in. I was headed back to my real life, where things move forward. My brain, all of a sudden, felt majorly cluttered.

Now, I’m not hugely into lifestyle fads. I liked it when red velvet and salted caramel became a thing, because those things are delicious. Recently with all this Hygge and Lykke and whatever else there is, however, I don’t really know what it’s all about or whether it’s all a load of nonsense. If ‘living danishly’ means you take baths and light candles I kind of think I can manage that by myself. But I’ll try anything once. I picked up two books: The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

I’ll start with Tidying. This book draws from a Japanese decluttering method called KonMari, devised by the book’s author. Amongst other things, it claims that there is a psychology to clutter and that, by tidying, one can sort through the negative effects of too much stuff. Now, there are some parts of this method which I find a little hard to swallow. I don’t really subscribe to the ‘clutter in specific rooms represents specific mental obstacles’ part. Living the way I do, in a communal student house, all clutter merges into the same kind of mess really. HOWEVER. There is a bunch of stuff that makes an awful lot of sense. Like William Morris said, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, KonMari has a similar ideal. A key part of the Japanese method is that you should determine whether items ‘spark joy’, and if they don’t, they go. Brutal, but good. Whilst organising my room in our new house, I have tried to pick up each item and asking myself a combination of those questions. Is this thing useful, or does it give me joy? If the answer to both of those is no, it’s going.

The harder for me is clothing. I am a massive collector of clothes. Probably because I still have no clue what my ideal style is combined with an underlying feeling of ‘if I can’t make this work I have failed’, I have a lot of stuff in my wardrobes and drawers. KonMari says to organise by category, not location, so sorting which clothes I bought to uni took a lot of time. One thing I did find, however, is the difference I felt between decluttering my things as opposed to decluttering my clothes. Something about clothing is inherently intertwined with identity, I think, so getting rid of a few things that don’t fit my style anymore made an immediate difference. I wouldn’t say I have a stronger identity because of it but I definitely feel like it’s a clearer relationship now.

Okay, onto Hygge. I have a problem with Hygge. Unlike KonMari, Hygge isn’t really about method as much as it is about a way of life. Hygge itself actually means ‘acknowledging a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary as cosy, charming or special’, but has been marketed as something much more purchasable than that. In books such as this one, things like candles and bath items are cited a lot as a way into this feeling of completedness and contentment that Hygge so often promises. Don’t get me wrong, I love candles. I think they’re wonderful. But I don’t think everyone needs candles to feel relaxed, or cosy, or ‘special’. I’d argue most people possess things like bubble bath, or candles, or soft furnishings in order to feel comfortable and to relax when they need to. I get that there is a cultural concentration of it that makes it seem ‘Danish’, but… nah.

With KonMari, there’s a clear source to target progression of clearing your house of clutter clears your mind of it. It’s not a new idea, it is essentially feng shui, but the instructional mode in which it’s delivered makes it clear, accessible and beneficial. With Hygge, I’m not so sure. What it aims to achieve, the calm cosiness that comes with appreciating nice surroundings, is admirable. Desirable. Healthy. But I don’t think there’s any one way of getting there. It’s not a commodity based situation. It’s a psychological one. Between these two books, I’d recommend giving Tidying a go. It has got some wishy-washy parts, but the base of it is very helpful. Hygge, however, just kind of made me angry. I get what it is trying to do, completely, but happiness isn’t something you can sell. And that’s how it feels right now. Saying that, I would love to read a book about the mental benefits of taking stock of your life, of finding appreciation in things, without explicitly referencing the things like they’re what’s going to make you happy.

What do you think about these ‘lifestyle’ books that are popping up recently? Helpful, healthy or unnecessary? Let me know!

Featured image from http://www.theatlantic.com

 

 

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We’re All Sick and Jomny Sun is the Cure

Not often do I love something as much as I love the Twitter of one @jonnysun. Not often does a series of words stick with me for long periods of time, let alone inform my decisions and give me hope to the point where I put it above my desk. A few years back, I followed Jomny on Twitter because of this one, beautiful message:

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And now, I have that quote, that saying that’s been sat above my desk for two years, in a book. Jomny’s recently released book everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too is hands-down my favourite of the year. It is thoughtful and hopeful and gut-wrenching and optimistic. It is sweet and joyous and warm and so, so sad. It’s also a picture book. Before I talk about Jomny Sun as a brand and a concept, I’ll try and sell you on the book as just a book.

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everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too follows the story of jomny, a aliebn sent to earbth to learn about humabns. Along the way he meets a tree, a bear, a hedgehog, an egg, a frog and an auteur amongst a whole host of other adorably drawn characters. Thinking they are humabns, jomny tries to learn from them. Their advices and stories are sometimes profound, sometimes ridiculous and a lot of times both. jomny is sad, lonely and lost. His own people think of each other as ‘strictly colleagues’ and think little jomny is weird. The storyline is essentially just jomny coming to terms with himself and his place in the universe via the interactions he has with all of these earbth creatures and a few aliebns too).

The tone of this piece is sad. But that’s important. One of my favourite pages of the book is this:

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It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to think about those scary things and those lonely things and those things that make you want to cry and curl up and hide from the world. Those thoughts are going to be there, in everyone, so pretending they aren’t is pointless. In the end, though, jomny finds that being sad doesn’t mean you can’t be happy. Quite the contrary, we need the sad things in life. If we didn’t have sadness, we wouldn’t have happiness either (see: the dog).

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For someone like me who is prone to dwell and overthink, this book felt like it was reaching into my head and pulling everything out, spilling it onto paper then showing me that it was all okay. Never before in my life have I put a book down feeling more like everything was going to be okay. The conciseness of the text on lots of the pages is reminiscent of their roots on Twitter, 140 characters or less. Because of this, each little sentence reads like poetry. Jomny’s ability to take these sometimes unbearably painful feelings – lostness, loneliness, invisibility – and make them into something beautiful completely astounds me, in all honesty. He doesn’t gloss over them. He doesn’t sugar coat them. He shows them for what they are and how they exist inside our heads and makes them into something worth experiencing. He makes them funny, even. This is vital: if you can laugh at something, doesn’t it seem a lot less scary? Look, all I’m saying is that this book will change your outlook on, well… everything. In an hour or less.

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Okay, writing and tone and content aside, I just wanted to talk about the beauty of the thing itself. Completely black and white, the illustrations are simple. Childlike simple in most places with the occasional detailed artistic interlude. It’s on thick paper, with good quality, crisp matte printing. You’ll recognise the style from @jonnysun and it’s just as endearing. The use of a few clean fonts is all this book needs in addition to the illustrations, all carefully chosen to reflect the characters that they represent. It’s gorgeous to hold, to read, to handle. My cover is hardback, which I believe is the only form available currently. I don’t often think getting hardback copies of books is worth it but oh my days it’s worth it for this. Not only does it add a real concreteness to the experience but it makes you relish it in a way I think is really important for what this book is trying to say. You need to give your preconceptions up when you read this and let the words speak for themselves. It’s a treasure.

Now that you’re completely sold on it and are going to go and get it right now, I’ll explain to you why I titled this post the way I did. Jomny, in all his forms, is us. Everyone is a aliebn. Everyone is a humabn. This one little alien cartoon, this one guy with a Twitter account and bad spelling is more relatable than anything BuzzFeed could dream of writing. Within that comes the respect and admiration I have for this book and the author behind it. He is just… a person. Twitter as a platform is used like this all the time, to make otherwise inaccessible people seem accessible. But Jomny is accessible. The story he is telling in everyone’s a aliebn doesn’t seem to exist for any other reason than because it simply is the story. It’s the story. Not for fame, or to make some grand statement, the way this story is told just seems like the sort of conversation you’d have with yourself in your head. I’ve definitely had some of those conversations with myself. But so has Jomny. And so, presumably, have millions of other people who love this stuff like I do. Who feel this stuff and deeply as I do. It’s a triumph in connecting people to each other. When it comes down to it, all this story is is one guy, struggling with life, writing down his thoughts to the point where a coherent story about a little aliebn coming to earbth emerged. It’s kind of novel writing in reverse. I guess that’s poetry, really.

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People slam Twitter. I don’t want to point fingers (baby boomers) but the internet get a lot of slack over connecting people at the expense of disconnecting other areas of their lives. But for this, well… I think it’s worth it. Jomny’s tweets, and subsequently this book, have connected people in such a beautiful way. I’ve always had this naïve little thought that lots of the problems we face, as humans, could be solved if we just had a little more empathy. And by God, this book makes you feel that. Whether it’s how it’s written, what it’s saying or how it’s presented, something about what this guy says gets right into your gut, your heart, your head. You get it, instantly. And I think, sometimes, if we could understand each other as intensely as people understand this book, things could really be better. I know for me, certainly, I feel I can be kinder having read this. I feel softer and sharper and smarter and gentler. I feel calm. But most of all, I feel like I can accept the hard stuff. And I feel like the hard stuff won’t make my life any less worth living or any less wonderful. There’s no other way to go, really. I’m sick. But so are you. r u gona take ur shoes off or wat?

everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too is out now. Published by Harper Perennial, it is available online and in US stores. Follow Jomny on Twitter at @jonnysun and change ur lyf.

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Summertime Sadness: A(n Amateur) Guide to Mental Illness Management at Festivals

A couple of weeks ago now, a group of my uni friends and I went to Citadel Festival in London. Full of current and past favourites of mine including Laura Marling, Maggie Rogers, Parcels and headliners Foals, it was an instant yes from me when my lovely and always on-the-music-ball friend David suggested it. I’d been at home for around a month when Citadel rolled around so I was really looking forward to seeing some friends and getting back into city life for a bit. My brain, however, had a different opinion.

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@isabelsuzannah on Instagram
This is the part where I’d usually say ‘Without going into too much detail, blah blah blah’, but that won’t really work for what I’m trying to say here. So here’s the detail. For the past couple of years I’ve suffered with a variety of depressive and dissociative disorders that come and go in waves. Last summer I experienced a massive flare-up of depersonalisation in which I spent a good month seeing the world through a hazy lens, as if I was watching my life from behind a screen rather than actually existing in it. Since then, these periods of depersonalisation have returned every so often in a similar way to that summer. Going into this summer, I was already nervous about a possible resurgence and I wasn’t entirely wrong to be so. After a week or so of being back in Sussex, I felt that same, detached feeling creeping back in. Thankfully, I’ve learned slowly how to manage myself when this happens but with this festival and a week-long holiday with my friend and her family looming, I felt on unsteady ground.

Studies are still sketchy in these areas, but there has been research to suggest biological factors. Experiments involving neurotransmitters have shown that people with depression often have interrupted serotonin and dopamine levels – otherwise known as your naturally occurring happy drugs. Such is the problem with these kinds of disorders: the parts of your brain that access joy and pleasure can feel dulled or switched off entirely. You’re there, physically, but you might be mentally and emotionally somewhere else. They also make social and physical exertion really tiring and often leave you feeling trapped or like you shouldn’t be doing anything other than lying in a familiar bed, safe and alone. So, upwards of twelve hours on your feet in an unfamiliar place several hours from home surrounded by tens of thousands of people? Risky business. But I did it. And (after accepting my brain was just in that place) I had fun. So here I am today with some pointers on how to make the day go smoothly so you can enjoy yourself to the best of your ability and have a good old groove while you’re at it.

Phase 1: Before

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@claviclmason on Instagram

This is already sounding more dramatic than I planned. I’m gonna roll with it. Okay, so, you’re a week or so away from the big week/weekend/day and you need to start planning ahead. I cannot stress how important it is to plan the logistics of things like this. Planning well will reduce anxiety and make things easier in all senses, allowing you to focus on enjoy the present moment rather than worrying about getting home. Here are the things you absolutely need to do before you set foot out the door.

  1. Tickets. I’m guilty of this one. I once made it nearly all the way to a festival without realising I’d left my ticket at home. That was not a fun few hours. More often than not, when ordering a ticket for a festival or a gig, you can opt to have a paper copy delivered to your home. I always do this, because I feel safer knowing I have this proper physical thing to prove I’m allowed to be there. In addition to this, you’ll probably have an e-mail confirmation and an e-ticket. Screenshot these for easy access.
  2. Travel. Depending on how far you are from the venue, you may need to sort travel in advance. For Citadel, we got the train into London and back. You’re gonna save a load of money booking in advance with a railcard, especially when it comes to travelling in London. Another tip would be to get a solid group of you travelling together – this will soften your anxiety, get you in a good mindset and also provide the option of doing a GroupSave ticket if someone forgets their railcard (…totally not me). If you’re driving in, make sure you’ve booked a space in the festival parking. Check your route before you leave, and I’ll also suggest screenshotting this if you’re going to be driving through areas with little signal/travelling via the Tube. Know your options in terms of getting home, check the last train times and look up back up options such as buses and taxis in the area. Sidenote: my ever wondrous friend Bella introduced us to an app called Citymapper to help you travel around London.
  3. PackingWhether it’s a day or five, get your packing done in advance. For Citadel, a day festival, I took a backpack (check the bag size restrictions) with a water bottle (empty, there’ll be water stations inside the festival), tickets, travel purse (take out things/cards/change you don’t need in case you lose it), paracetamol, sunglasses, a jumper and your phone. Chewing gum has been proven to have calming effects, too. If you’re going somewhere like Glasto or Reading, make sure you’ve got your tent and toiletries stuff sorted and check the festival’s specific regulations when it comes to what you can and can’t have. In some cases, you’re allowed to bring food in, in which case, snacks. Snacks snacks snacks. Also, make sure you have a hairband to hand. For the love of god those crowds get hot.

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    @claviclmason on Instagram

In addition to these things, I have a few extra trips that I found useful for my day. Eat a good breakfast – a slow release one like porridge. My main symptom is that of feeling constantly spaced out so adding hunger wooziness to that is just unnecessary. Find a good meeting place if there’s going to be a bunch of you – a specific one. Like a local pub or a specific stand in the festival. You don’t want to be running around looking for two people among thousands. Something I usually find super creepy but actually proved really useful was SnapMaps. I turned it on and selected which friends could see me so that we could all track each other’s whereabouts just in case. This also allowed us to see when everyone had got home safely.

Phase 2: During

This is the hard part. A lot of the time I never know how I’m going to feel from minute to minute, let alone across the period of a few days. Managing your mental health is something that should always be your priority but doing it in a festival scenario can be hard. Here are some tips to do to keep yourself centred and solid throughout.

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@claviclmason on Instagram
  1. HALT. Bear with me, but this is a little trick I learned from The CW’s Jane the Virgin. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. In the programme, Jane is told to use this to assess her susceptibility for panic attacks but I think it can extend to all kinds of disorders. I know for a fact that when I’m any of those things my mental health can easily spin out. So, if you feel your brain fogging you out, take a step back and try to see if you’re any of those things. If so, do what you can to remedy them.
  2. Hydrate and nourish. Food and drink, people. I’m not going to stop saying it. Eat those snacks and make sure you drink water. I know personally that having a couple of drinks helps me out, so if you do drink alcohol it’s all the more important to stay hydrated. However, only drink if you know you can drink responsibly, never get more than tipsy and make sure your friends are all looking out for each other.
  3. Take a second. Throughout the festival I got these crazy waves of feeling trapped and wanting to go home. While these feelings are completely valid, they are not productive or gratifying in any way. At a house party, even clubbing, you have the options of going home safely but at a festival, you’re more likely to put yourself in a bad situation if you try to leave alone. In this case, you need to take a minute out. You can do this by escaping to the loo for a moment, refilling your water, or simply sitting out of a couple of acts. At Citadel, all my favourite acts were on in the first few hours, so by the time it got to the headliners, I was started to feel panicked and phased out. For one of the acts, we broke into two groups, one went in, one stayed out, and for the final act I went in, started freaking out, then took myself out and found a spot where I would be found easily later on. It’s okay to do this, as long and you do it safely and have people know where you are at all times.

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    @danlyonss on Instagram
  4. Calm down. During Foals, the final act, I felt a proper freak out coming on. Huge crowd, rowdy as heck, bottles flying everywhere and music that I wasn’t that into. One of my friends had to fight his way out of the crowd anyway to catch a train, so I decided to exit with him and sit this one out. I still had a good view of the big screens and could apparently hear better than in the actual crowd. I did feel instantly calmer leaving, but just in case I opened my Aura app and did a few mindfulness exercises. Things like mindful breathing and checking in with your body you can do anywhere and on the move, so I highly recommend learning a few of these before you go. I like to breathe in time with tracing my fingers up and down. Aura also provides quick, guided meditations if you need that extra help.
  5. Fight back. This sounds like the worst advice. I know it’s aggravating to hear sometimes but I’m a big believer in the power of acting like you want to feel. Whether or not you actually feel any differently, telling yourself you are going to enjoy yourself can have a big impact on the way you experience things. If you can, fight back. Do the things, take part in the activities, jump in the crowd. Smiling makes you and those around you happier. If you have to take yourself out, tell yourself that you just need a quick break and you’ll be ready to have fun again when the next thing comes along. It’s sort of like fake it til you make it (which has been proven to work, by the way) but internal.
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@claviclmason on Instagram

One last little personal thing for me was taking something to entertain me. Sometimes, especially at the end of long days, I feel like it’s almost impossible for me to make conversation but even more impossible to sit there in silence. Taking something to distract you is always a good shout. For me, when I sat out for Foals, I read a little. Thanks to the Amazon Kindle app, I had a bunch of course texts on my phone that I gave a little read. Cut me some slack, you know I’m an English student. One thing I would say is avoid using social media as this escape – it can often make you feel more detached than before. My friend Kate did a wonderful post on this over on her blog.

And lastly…

Phase 3: After

See, you did it! Wasn’t that bad, right? Okay, you’re exhausted, you’re covered in glitter and you haven’t done any exercise in a month so your muscles and falling apart from the exertion but you had a good day. Even so, making sure you’re okay afterwards is imperative.

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@claviclmason on Instagram
  1. Get home safe. As I said earlier, plan plan plan. Getting home is maybe the most important plan to have, as you’ll already be exhausted and probably just wanting water and bed at this point. Know which train you’re getting, how to get there and who’s coming with you. Try and travel in a group (as always). Get a group taxi home and drop people off in an order which means at least two of you are at the final destination so no one has to be in the taxi alone. Text people when you’re home safe. Maybe get your parents to leave a spare key somewhere or leave the back door on latch so you don’t have to take your keys with you.
  2. Let yourself sleep in. If you possibly can, don’t set an alarm. You’re going to be more exhausted than you usually are, physically and mentally, so let your body take as much time as it needs. Make sure you’ve drawn your curtains and…
  3. Give yourself the next day off. I know this isn’t possible for a lot of people. You might have work or school or social engagements but if you at all can, let yourself have a recovery day. After a solid period of time in constant contact with people, I often find I need to be alone for a good while. Even extroverted people need this sometimes. Have a chill day watching Netflix or relaxing in the garden or catching up on some reading. Have a really good bath or a shower because you’re going to be disgusting. Just let yourself exist for a day before re-entering the real world. Reboot yourself.
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@elisejackoon on Instagram

So, there it is. My advice to surviving a festival if you’re prone to a little madness. The last thing I want to say is keep your expectations optimistic. It can be so, so hard but you have to go into these things expecting to have a good time. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s harsh but true. It’s a whole mode of thought called learned optimism! And I know, it doesn’t seem possible sometimes. But it is, I promise. You’re going to have fun. You’re going to make memories. You’re going to be alright.

Love, Elise.

If any of these things resonated with you and you feel you may have mental health problems, please seek help from a doctor. Getting counselling comes with unimaginable benefits and no one should suffer mental illness alone. In the meantime, check out these resources:

All photos are mine or courtesy of David Mason (@claviclmason on Twitter and Instagram), Bella Brown (@bellabrwn on Twitter, @isabelsuzannah on Instagram, bellevernacular on WordPress) and Dan Lyons (@dantheli0nman on Twitter, @danlyonss on Instagram and danthelionman on WordPress). Thanks for reading and please feel free to message me with questions or leave a comment below. This is my first attempt at something semi-personal and I’m thinking about writing another similarly themed to this. Thanks!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – A Review

I’m back! My sunburn has turned to tan so I’m ready to get back to working here in drizzly England. One thing I am already missing dearly, however, is the possibility of doing nothing but read a book on the beach all day. In an attempt to relive it, here is a small review of a book I demolished on holiday.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the debut novel from Gail Honeyman. The New York Times named it a ‘Book to Breeze Through This Summer’ and they aren’t wrong. I read this in a grand total of two sittings. It’s a charming read. Not too complex, not too wordy, but with the most endearing characters and heartbreaking moments.

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Now, this book could definitely be categorised as an airport read. The tone of it is not dissimilar to books like The Rosie Project or Sofia Khan is Not Obliged but the underlying issues it deals with are much darker. After hearing Eleanor’s conversations with her mother and subtle hints towards a traumatic past, we get the sense that something awful has happened to this woman. The main source of tension from the book comes from finding out just what happened to her. There are many clues throughout – I’m the sort of person who likes to guess the ending – and they’re only just under the surface. It’s accessible and sort of expected but Honeyman’s charactersation of Eleanor makes your heart break for her all the same.

One of my favourite things about this book is that its incredibly satisfying. There are a lot of recognisable tropes in this novel – girl struggles with bitchy coworkers, girl drinks at home alone, girl pines after dreamboat instead of noticing what’s been under her nose the whole time!!! – but this only added to my enjoyment. I don’t want to be thinking too hard on holiday, I just want to be sucked in and be pulled along for the ride. My absolute favourite trope was that of the makeover. As a less-than-attractive teen who had (has) no natural fashion sense, I felt… a strong affinity for Eleanor. You know how in teen movies there’s the makeover montage (Princess Diaries anyone?), well, somehow Honeyman does this in word form. You see Eleanor discover hair, makeup, nails and fashion in a clumsy way. It’s adorable and so, so real. What?? It’s satisfying. I’ve been socialised by all those movies to love a good makeover.

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Lastly, the characters are just right. In another novel, in another circumstance, I would say the supporting characters have been written lazily. But for this world, and for what this book achieves, they are just right. Aside from ‘the musician’, I know someone like every one of the characters in this book. I even found myself inserting them into the story as I was reading it. They are real people. Coworkers and store clerks and nice old women. It’s their relationship with Eleanor that really tells us something. Eleanor has, as you find out throughout the book, had an awful past that she’s somewhat blocked from her memory. It comes out in dribs and drabs but never enough to make her a sympathetic figure to those around her. They just see her as weird. But just like all the other characters, I could see myself meeting an Eleanor. Knowing an Eleanor, working with an Eleanor. What this book does is warn you that people have shit going on. No matter how under the surface, it always pays to be kind, first and foremost. It tells us that empathy is invaluable. The visceral reality that Honeyman presents us with doesn’t let you leave without thinking before you judge someone for being odd.

Best of all, this book is sweet. Eleanor is troubled, she has more baggage than a transatlantic flight but she never pities herself. Her tone, her voice, whilst grounded a lot in delusion and denial, is light in the most part. The contrast this provides with the dark sections and content of the book work to create a really full-feeling piece of literature, without ever feeling too heavy or depressing. It ends on a beautifully positive note, and embraces you warmly as you head out.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is published by HarperCollins and is available in all good bookstores. I got mine for half price in Waterstones! Thanks for reading and leave me some comments if you’ve read this book too, I want to talk about it more!

My Holiday Read Recs

So this post is entirely self-indulgent. I’m going on holiday in a couple of weeks with my best friend and despite neglecting to buy a bikini I have, of course, selected my reading material. It’s kind of the most important part of my hype process. Shush. This post contains some of my holiday reads of years gone by, books I’ve read that would have been perfect holiday reads and one or two that I just love and will take any chance to pedal to people. Okay, let’s just get into it!!

10. Howards End by E. M. Forster

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I can already feel the eye rolls of my course friends as I write this. They know how much I loved studying this book and I used to (…) get mad because no one else seemed to love it as much as I did. But I’m not trying to sell it as a book, I’m trying to sell it as a holiday read. I have to admit I knew fudge all about Forster before I studied him. That’s not a new thing for me, if studying English at university has taught me anything it’s that I have read, like, nothing. So, when I picked up this book as the first of the semester, I was immediately drawn in by how easy the form and style was to read. For a book from 1910, I was not expecting it. It reads almost cinematically: I found myself being able to picture every little thing – the landscapes, the houses, the characters – perfectly. Forster’s style is fluid and uncomplicated yet masterful at spinning the plates of upwards of seven principle characters. Thematically, it’s literary and pretty high-concept in some ways but super accessible nonetheless. I just loved this book and it’s well worth checking off the list whilst you have the time to. Read whilst travelling to get the full force of modernism.

9. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Oooooh I have such emotions over this book. I got it in a Christmas stocking many, many years ago and was initially confused as to why my mum had bought me what presented as a creepy horror book (she’s more of a Jane Austen/historical fiction person). I flicked through it and was intrigued by the photographic inserts, creepy as they were, and settled to start it when the Christmas food coma set in.

missperegrine_334x518[1]It’s solidly grounded in the YA genre but I love that genre, still, no shame. Because of this, it is a quick one to engage with, the characters are relatable (if a little 2D) and the world has just the right amount of magic and suspense. The whole concept is well thought out and fresh for the fantasy world. The form and design of the book is delicious. Little magical trademarks always satisfy me – different Patronuses in HP, the Peculiarities of the children and.. yeah, okay, the skills of the vampires in Twilight. It’s an easy read and definitely one that you get as much as you put in. If I remember rightly I had been having trouble finding something I could really get into at the time so this book seemed like a godsend when I picked it up, so I got a load out of it. I didn’t have the same experience with the sequels, however, but this books succeeds more than enough as a stand alone. Great for plane rides or slow evenings on the balcony.

8. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf

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Okay, so I know this seems a bit heavy. This spot was initially going to be taken up by a Katherine Mansfield short story collection but this entry has a special little addition. It’s available, for free, on the Kindle app. Yep, completely free. As long as you have an Amazon membership you can get pretty much every piece of writing Virginia Woolf has ever produced for free. FREE. It’s madness, honestly. I found this out because I’m doing a single author study on her next year but I’m 100% taking this with me on my holiday. No matter where you stand on the whole e-Book debate, it is easier and more efficient to take a Kindle instead of 2-3 books in your carry-on. Virginia Woolf is a super important lady when it comes to shaping contemporary fiction and her work is really worth it. Though initially hard, once you get used to her style it can be really lovely. There’s the selection of essays, novels and even letters in the free collection, so you can dip in and out as you please. I recommend A Room of One’s Own and To the Lighthouse if you’re looking for that holiday setting. Good for after dinner when you can give it some thought. Did I mentions it’s FREE??

7. Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson

Now, here’s some textbook holiday read for you. A proper suspense novel, this book is a cliffhanger after cliffhanger page-turner of a read. Although not my favourite story or execution, I did completely devour it. As a thriller, it ticks all the boxes and for someone who prides themselves on being able to guess plot twists, it took me a long time to get this one. It’s a really good plot twist and a messed up one too.

51e--ljGmeL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_[1] The kind that makes you go ‘Ew. No. Oh my god. No. EW. I feel icky.’ You know? A film was made of it a few years back and I remember being disappointed-ish but I might have distracted by the fact Colin Firth was in it. I’ll explain that later. Most of the suspense comes from the main character’s amnesia, so it is a very internal kind of drama. That sort of thing is hard to translate onto the screen but is a novel writer’s bread and butter. A good alternative to this would be And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, but Before I Go to Sleep has a definite modern feel to it and is perhaps more relatable and easy to sink your teeth into. This would be a great one when you’re killing time on the beach. There’s a whole section in my home love Brighton after all! Maybe don’t read in an enclosed space though.

6. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison

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This one is just a cute one. I read it sat in a deck chair in my mum’s house in Norfolk because I didn’t bring any books home with me and it was just there on the shelf. Based around a thirty-something autistic man, there is the risk of it being a bit misrepresentative, but from what the author’s notes say Simison pulled from a real-life friend to create as accurate a character as he could in Don Tillman. It’s a pretty classic boy-meets-girl type scenario, where the girl is the complete opposite of what the boy wants but (SPOILER) they have mad chemistry anyway. You could easily tear this book apart in a day or two and will simply warm your heart. For something light and fluffy and to make you feel good about the world, go for this. Very easy to dip in and out of, so take with you to read in between holiday activities. It’s a proper book-club read so pass it onto your mum/friend/Airbnb host when you’re done with it and there’s a sequel for when you’re done.

5. Anything by John Green

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By that I mean anything that he’s written, not some obscure book called Anything that you’ve never heard of. Like most people my age, I went through a right John Green phase where I read everything he’d written back to back. Specifically, I remember reading An Abundance of Katherines in Egypt and Paper Towns in Paris. Both books and both holidays had a whole bunch of driving in (stuff in Egypt is so far apart and Paris was a coach-led school trip) so these books really reflected my ‘I’m such a cool, well-travelled edgy 14-year old’ vibe. Again, they are YA fiction so it doesn’t take much to get sucked in. I prefer these two novels over The Fault in Our Stars, but that may be because I overhyped the latter in my head for ages before it came out. Still, all of John Green’s novels are enjoyable, readable, emotional and funny in just the right amounts. I had ‘I go to seek a great perhaps’ written on my wall for ages after I read Looking for Alaska. My John Green phase also coincided with my quote collection phase. A great one to read in the back of a car, driving literally anywhere and wishing you were younger, edgier and way easier to fall in love with than you are.

4. I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

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Another book I have strong holiday memories attached to is this novel by the writer of The Book Thief. His previous novel is absolutely NOT a holiday read, unless you like being very, very saddened on holiday, but I Am the Messenger is a great choice. It’s sort of YA-y with a mystery element but based very much in the reality of a down-on-his-luck cab driver in Australia. Ed, the cabbie, ends up stopping a bank robbery and through various events becomes a messenger for an unknown entity. Being the messenger gives him this kind of mission, this purpose, in life and he follows it even when it seems to be doing more harm than good. I just remember really wanting to pick this book up. I read it on a super busy holiday but still managed to get through it in a short few days so I take that as a testament to the writing. Overall, just an engaging, fun book with characters who really make you care about them and a plotline that makes you wanna find out more. It also sets you up for the tear fest that is The Book Thief if you want to read that when you’re not trying to have a nice time.

3. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

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This one’s poems! You may have seen Rupi Kaur’s work online a lot. She gained fame as an ‘Instagram poet’, posting her short, sweet poems with little illustrations onto the social media platform. Her posts quickly escalated into a book deal and thus Milk and Honey was born. It’s a gorgeous book, it really is. The cover has a matte finish, the illustrations all the way through are adorable and even the font choice is delicate and resonating of the whole feel of the collection. The poems document a young love and all the bittersweet wonder of those feelings. In all honesty, I’m not overly into them, but there are little tidbits of gold in there. ‘i want to apologize to all the women’ is a beautiful piece of writing with a towering sentiment that stuck with me for days. My best friend has this poem written out and stuck on her wall, so it always makes me think of her (she is also resilient and extraordinary as well as beautiful so it makes me v emosh) and is honestly just such a heartwarming thing. The brilliance of taking a poetry collection on holiday with you is that you can spend as much time with it as you like. These pieces are super short to read so are perfect for skimming through between tan rotations on the beach or steps in the airport. Whether or not poetry is your thing, I highly recommend showing this lady’s work to your friends and family as they somehow resonate with everyone.

2. Emma by Jane Austen

STOP ROLLING YOUR EYES AT ME. You know who you are. I’m not going to defend Jane Austen because I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO but seriously, just, please, like.. give her a chance if you haven’t already. This is the root of my Colin Firth love (remember that from earlier?) and I had a hard time picking between Emma and Pride and Prejudice. P&P is my original love (I read it whilst sick in bed on a Wales holiday when I was 11) but Emma is my all-time favourite regency novel.

51UGpqQ+pAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Something about the whole book feels sunny to me, which is why I selected it for the holiday read section. Box Hill, where Emma and her friends visit together, is just a county over from mine and I have actually been there several times, so picturing that section of the book is always so vivid for me. Emma is a brilliant example of Austen’s work. It balances female friendships, male friendships, male-female friendships, single parent families, older couples, rich-poor relations, marrying for love and marrying for money. All with a great sense of humour and a main character you don’t always root for. Emma makes some major, like major, mistakes and sometimes seems outright intolerable but that’s what makes her such a brilliant protagonist. She grows and changes throughout the novel, and whether you believe if Emma’s intentions are always good or not, you can always track how she comes to the conclusions she comes to. I’m also a sucker for a good declaration of love and this is HANDS DOWN the best one in existence. ‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more’. OOOOF. Also, the BBC adaptation of this book is fantastic, so you’d get that all-too-rare warm fuzzy feeling of the TV show living up to the book. Also, Jonny Lee Miller is a dream. Read this one wherever, whenever, just read it, please. P-L-E-A-S-E.

1. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Here it is! Number 1. In a sentence, imagine a super modern, hilarious, Muslim Bridget Jones. I know, right. This was my pick for last year’s holiday after watching my absolute favourite Youtube/book gal Leena Norms interview the writer and also rant about it on social media. I’m ashamed to say my reading history has never included a Muslim author and has an unacceptably small about of POC writers. I’m a big believer in reading stories about people with different life experiences to you. For me, it’s the most effective way into empathising with others. But this book, man.

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Aside from all that, this book is just fantastic. It’s hilarious, for one. Laugh-out-loud funny. Sofia is adorable, her family is awesome and her love interests range from mad to dreamy to shocking. It is, on the surface, very chic-litty. There is nothing wrong with chic-lit, by the way, but I know that can unfortunately out people off. In format, this book is written like a diary, so it immediately reminisces things like Bridget Jones’ Diary and Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging (childhood aaah). Therefore, it is incredibly easy to read and, apt to that holiday lifestyle, very pick-up-and-put-downable. I read this one by the pool overlooking the mountains between the Bonsian and Croatian border whilst on holiday with 5 boys, so it gave me a nice bit of girly respite. Even so, I would completely recommend this book to anyone. It’s just… smart. So smart. All the way through there are these little references, like to specific Patisserie Valeries which just give that little bit of richness to an already fully realised set of characters as well as providing a little bit of in-joke satisfaction. More importantly, though, this books taught me so much about Muslim culture. Without ever seeming like it was teaching me anything, I finished the book with a whole new knowledge base. I don’t want to get too political, because this book shouldn’t be political in any way, it should just be enjoyed for the pure joy that it is, but reading it really did open my eyes to things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Achieving that whilst still making me laugh on every page and rooting for one guy over the other in a classic love triangle sitch is some pretty great writing if you ask me. A great read for pool or seaside, or as a nice light wind down on a dusky evening. Ayisha Malik also seems like a super lady, check out her and Leena’s interview here.

And just one more…

A little honorable mention here, for a book I want to read but haven’t managed to get my hands on yet. If you don’t follow @jonnysun on Twitter, please fix that immediately. He is the only person whose quotes still grace my walls. His book, Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, looks like the most perfect little collection of messages, sayings and illustrations that ever did be. Here’s the quote that I have above my desk: for whatever reason, it is the most inspiring thing I’ve read all year. Perfect summer stuff.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green – A Review

Here we are – the first of the heavy dissertation texts. First, I need to do a teeny bit of disclaiming. I haven’t actually finished this book. I took it out of my university library to read before I headed home for the summer but, unfortunately, did not reach the end. I will go into why I think this was later on, but I apologise in advance to those who may have read it and think this analysis is just an uninformed mess because it could very well be.

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I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a novel written by Joanne Greenberg (pen name Hannah Green) in 1964 based around a young girl, Deborah Blau, and her three years as an institutionalised schizophrenic. Not to be confused with the Lynne Anderson song of the same name, the titular phrase provides a basis for almost all of my analysis for the book. Titles are important, guys! So, as a jumping off point for, well.. all my points, I am going to use the scene from where the title is taken. In short, Deborah is visiting her therapist, Dr. Fried (yep, really), after a patient-on-nurse attack. Here is a small passage:

“But you see, I have no part in what is to be done on the wards; I am not an administrative doctor.”
Deborah saw the match lighting dry fuel. “What good is your reality, when justice fails and dishonesty is glossed over and the ones who keep faith suffer. Helene kept her bargain about Ellis and so did I. What good is your reality then?”
“Look here,” Furii said. “I never promised you a rose garden. I never promised you perfect justice…” (Chapter 13).

These few sentences sum up so many of the themes, ideas and conflicts in the book. Deborah’s statement about reality and Dr. Fried’s response (called by her Yri name, Furii) almost paraphrases what the whole book is about – it is a template, almost, a microcosm or synecdoche on the conceptual level rather than the word. It is unclear whether Deborah’s opinion is a symptom of her illness or whether her illness is a result of this unhappiness with reality. Dr. Fried, in comparison, is clinical and harsh in response, yet we assume truthful and realistic. It examples the struggle between Deborah and Fried, illness and health, internal and external realities. This brings me on to my first point of discussion.

Text World Theory

I first came across this theory in my year 2 Literary Linguistics module (or it may have been in a language one in first year I can’t remember I’m sorry lecturers if you’re reading this) and just thought it was the coolest thing. I’ll try and explain it as clearly as possible but forgive me if this gets a bit rambly. Essentially, Text World Theory says that humans understand the world around them by constructing versions of it in their heads in which to run simulations on. Much like the theory that nightmares are just your unconscious brain training you for dangerous situations, Text World Theory provides a basis for a similar function. You create a world in your mind that has all the struggles of reality but without the consequences in order to inform your behaviour in the real world. In prose fiction, creating a good text-world is imperative to the reader accepting what happens as the true reality of the characters and settings of the book. Without a believable text-world, we just wouldn’t engage. There are so many applications of this theory, so if you want to learn more head over to the Text World Theory website or to the awesome Prof. Joanna Gavins’ twitter page if you want to know more.

Now, the reason I mention this is that Text World Theory can inform so much upon mental illness narratives. So many disorders, especially anxiety and paranoid ones, take hold through constructing uncomfortable or distressing versions of reality and convincing the individual that that is the reality of their world. That the terrible scenarios that the mind concocts are just projections of the truth. After repeated use, this pathway in the brain becomes stronger and stronger, until an individual’s behaviours becomes based purely around the avoidance or maintenance of certain patterns in order to avoid pain or conflict. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dog, right? Bell rings, dog gets fed. After a while, the sound of bell ringing triggers dog’s salivation glands. It’s called classical conditioning and forms the basis of the school of psychology known as behaviourism. An important set of experiments in this school came from B. F. Skinner in the 1930s, in which he distinguishes between different types of conditioning. One such strain is that of negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when you repeat a behaviour so that it leads to rewards, eg. pressing a button to receive food. The opposite is negative reinforcement, where you repeat a behaviour in order to avoid a negative situation, eg. pressing a button so you don’t get electric shocked. Skinner did this with rats, but I’m hoping you can see what I’m getting at here. Many anxiety disorders, such as OCD, take root and grow through this kind of process. If I don’t shut the front door 3 times every time I go out, I will get burgled. If I don’t do exactly 72 scrubs of my toothbrush every morning and night, I will get gingivitis. It’s about performing something to avoid negative consequences. This can, however, expand wider. If I don’t leave my house, I won’t have to face possible humiliation. If I don’t eat, I’ll be skinny and people will love me. You see? Despite everyone probably experiencing these kinds of things once in a while, it is the unhealthy mind that latches to this and that is where lots of our diagnoses come from.

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A still from the 1977 film version
Okay, but how does that relate to Text World Theory and to I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? A main feature of Deborah’s characterisation in the book comes from her internal reality construction. She creates a whole world in her mind in which she retreats, or occasionally is dragged into, when she experiences an episode. Named Yr, this world has gods and eternal pits and fire. It’s pretty intense. Here’s a quick snippet of Deborah’s view of Yr in comparison to the Here (reality):

To escape engulfment there was only the Here, with its ice-cold doctor and his notebook, or Yr with its golden meadows and gods. But Yr also held its regions of horror and lostness and she no longer knew to which kingdom in Yr there was passage. (Chapter 2).

We can see here that Yr can be beautiful. It has golden meadows and long grasses in which Deborah feels free. But it also has regions of eternal darkness and unimaginable suffering. Sound familiar? This constructed world in Deborah’s mind is meant to reflect the real world in some fantastical way. It’s called Yr, for one. I have to admit, it took me until she said it alongside ‘the Here’ for me to get the comparison, but there it is. It has its own language, Yri, and names for people in the real world – Deborah has an assortment of epithets including ‘bird-one’ and Dr. Fried is renamed ‘Furii’ as seen earlier. Everything in Yr can, to some degree, be linked to something in the real world. When Deborah has a mental break and is taken to be strapped to the wet cloth, she retreats to Yr where she falls into darkness for four days straight. It all links in some way. Her childhood teasing has filtered into Yr in the form of the whisperings of the ‘Collect’. Nothing is new, necessarily, but reshaped versions of Deborah’s reality, past or present. Yr, however real feeling to Deborah, is a simulated reality in Deborah’s mind, with direct links to her actual surroundings. To what success this simulated reality informs on the real one is an important theme in the book.

Fantasy

These are mental representations, just like the one we create for the text-world of the book. The biggest obstacle I found in connecting to the story was that I found Yr to be a smidge too fantastical. I found it unlikely that, no matter her illness, Deborah seemed too intelligent to believe this world in her head was a real one. Once I decided to read the story from the assumption that Deborah didn’t believe it was real, but escaping to Yr over the cold world of the Here, I found it a lot more enjoyable. Why? Because I started viewing Yr as a text-world narrative Deborah was living. The mental representation she had of Yr was so progressed and in depth that it is easy for her to accept it as a kind of truth. This is what a good piece of prose fiction does. The text-world we create when reading the novel itself is reflected in the internal reality Deborah creates in her mind. Accepting this gave the representation of Yr a newfound credibility to me. When you read Harry Potter you don’t sneer every second that ‘that’s unlikely’. Fully investing in the text-world provides all kinds of leeway for fantasy elements and that is what I believe Deborah is experiencing in Yr. Much like reading for the likes of you and me, Deborah can allow Yr the unbelievable elements because her mind creates the world out of a desire to escape. She holds it as truth with both hands because it seems better than the alternative.

Schizophrenia and Ageing

Finally, I want to note the age of the book. Of course, this is not necessarily a point of criticism, but I think, due to the content of the book, it is a point of discussion. Research into schizophrenia is still relatively limited. In recent years it has been accepted that ‘schizophrenia’ is merely an umbrella term for a whole spectrum of symptoms and is mildly reductionist. The DSM-V clinical outline for schizophrenia would allow two patients with completely different symptoms to receive the same diagnosis, for example. One main linking factor is that or paranoia and delusions, both of which Deborah shows in some degree in the book. However, a theme in this kind of behaviour is that this manifests in real-life intrusions. For example, people with schizophrenia might believe that the government is out to get them and thus finds evidence for this in their real lives. On the other hand, a patient may be going about their regular routine and hear voices commenting or criticising what they are doing. These are known as positive symptoms, things that occur in addition to real life. Negative symptoms, such as avolition and alogia, represent the detriment of regular functions. The difference in Deborah’s symptoms here is that her hallucinatory world is completely separate from the real one. Despite the comparisons, no characters, except herself, exist in both planes. I think perhaps this can be attributed to the understanding of the disorder at the time of writing. As a modern reader, this is what I found hardest to reconcile. My understanding of schizophrenic disorders did not match up with the representations in the book, therefore detaching me a little in my experience of it.

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from broadwayworld.com, Miners Alley Playhouse production
I did enjoy the half or so I read of this novel. Green’s writing style is engaging and fluid, her construction of Yr fascinating and rich. If I compared that bit to anything, it would be similar to Tolkien’s Middle-earth. However, I didn’t find myself reaching for it. Maybe that has to do with my subconscious awareness that it was kind of work, but I feel like it was more to do with my trouble finding the main character believable. My gut instinct is that this book is becoming time-bound. However, going back to that first titular quote, the moralistic message rings true even now. ‘”I never promised you a rose garden…”‘ might not float in psychiatrists’ offices nowadays but I appreciate the sentiment. The more we understand about mental illness leads to higher rates of medicalisation, which in turn leads to higher rates of medication. While I’m not slamming medication, there is an increasing risk of people assuming they can take a pill for mental disorders instead of therapy and expect instant results. This is what Dr. Fried means when she says this to Deborah. She can’t cure her straight away, it doesn’t work like that. Deborah has to put in the work, too. It’s a hard, long road but it’s important to face it head on. In this way, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is a little timeless.

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Hannah Green was published in 1964 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. It was developed into a film in 1977 and a play in 2004. I’d be super interested to see what those look like, so if anyone has any comments on them let me know. Also, as a general disclaimer for these posts, I am not a psychologist so I apologise for any inaccuracy – I have done as much research as I can in order to present things as fairly as possible. Thanks for reading!

A Super Quick Love Letter to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Okay but, really. Why have more people not seen this show? Read this then immediately go and watch it. The first two seasons are on Netflix and if you don’t have Netflix 1) you’re a liar and 2) borrow your friend’s/flatmates/use your ex’s because we both know you still know the password.

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The first thing I want to say about this show is give it a chance. Look past the chic-flick title and premise and just, like, give it a chance dude. I know that ‘Quirky but smart woman quits her high-paying law job to move across the country to be with her two-months-at-a-summer-camp-when-they-were-sixteen ex-boyfriend’ sounds like the sort of 2 and a half star film you’d put on when you’ve got no plans on a Friday night but it is so much more than that! Here’s just a FEW reasons why this show is fantastic because I could literally write an essay per episode on why it’s important and no one wants to see that.

It’s pretty woke.

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From the title and content, you might think the opposite, but for a show in which almost the entire first season runs off of a love triangle between Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), her ex, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) and Josh’s sarky bartender best friend Greg (Santino Fontana), it manages to remain feminist. Mainly down to Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s fantastic writing, Rebecca is obsessed with romantic love with men in many ways, but this is never shown to devalue her as a woman, or a person. Female friendships, especially between Rebecca and best friend/partner-in-crime Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), are just as important to the show as the romantic relationships. By the end of the second season, I’d argue that they are more so. All the women in this show are painted as complicated, compassionate and intelligent, but most of all, they feel real. It’s kind of concerning how much I related to a lot of these women in a lot of ways.

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In addition to gender discussions, the show has several LGBT+ characters, including an openly bi character. And by openly I don’t mean the ‘likes both genders but doesn’t like labels’ kind of open that tends to get written in TV nowadays, but having a song called ‘Gettin’ Bi’ and playing sax in front of a giant bi flag open. It also shows Darryl (Pete Gardner) and White Josh (David Hull) to be in a secure, committed relationship to contrast with the outright terribleness of some of the straight ones in the show. It’s a genuinely refreshing thing to see, which is sad in the grand scheme of things, but a real success in the show.

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Finally, it has a fantastically diverse cast. In the seven leads there are three POC characters, including the main love interest of Josh Chan, and countless more amongst the recurring cast. Alongside the aforementioned LGBT+ representation, Rebecca’s Jewish heritage and Josh’s Christian beliefs are explored deeply as factors of their characters, rather than just throwaway features. Family set-ups range from the American ideal to families going through divorce and infidelity to single mothers with absent fathers to broken ones undergoing repair. It shows women who desperately want to get married, who feel stuck in married life and who are just doing their own thing. Rebecca has a lot of sex but is never shamed or looked down upon because of it. Rebecca is a powerhouse career gal, Valencia feels lost but eventually finds her calling, Heather is an 8-year-long community college student and Paula chooses to follow her career dreams alongside being a mother. The same goes for the men in the show. Greg got into Emory business school but was forced to stay in West Covina for his sick father, Josh tried to make it in New York but couldn’t hack it and returned to his family and girlfriend of 15 years that he can’t quite commit to, Darryl fights for sole custody of his daughter and Hector still lives with his mom. All of the characters in this show are written in such a way that you understand exactly why they do everything they do and why they are the way they are. Each character is afforded this complexity and the result is something so engaging and fresh that you can’t help but care for each and every one of them.

It’s funny.

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This sounds like a low bar for a comedy show but you’d be surprised. Since I first saw Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I’ve become super critical of American comedy shows for being funny through being offensive or cheap in their humour. My example would be The Big Bang Theory which, despite being super successful, I find hard to see past the fact that it’s basically just based around making fun of an autistic man. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Community broke that trend for me and since then I’ve been super wary of comedy shows on TV. There’s also probably the problem of me being a British person with a very British sense of humour but whatever. Even that part of me gets satisfied by Greg’s Office-style reactions (it was English first, dammit). The reason I think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend nails humour is because oftentimes the joke is not at the expense of the flawed person, but rather made by the flawed person to the ignorant one. It ridicules not being broken but not being compassionate. The funny moments also function as a kind of in-joke between the viewer and the characters, specifically I think for Rebecca and Greg. This is often achieved in the musical numbers. In ‘I Could If I Wanted To’, we laugh at Greg because he is trying to kid himself that he could get grades if he cared, but he doesn’t care so it’s, you know, whatever.

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In ‘You Stupid Bitch’, Rebecca is inviting criticism of herself in such a melodramatic way it’s hard not to find funny. However, these songs do a really clever thing. Due to the fantastic writing and acting, we connect so wholly with these characters that when we see into their heads during these songs, it’s hard not to relate in some way. Greg and Rebecca are super sympathetic characters, so when they sing these songs, we laugh at them so we can recognise the flaws in ourselves to laugh at. A combination of sad and funny on the surface, the humour this show brings also functions as a kind of catharsis for the viewer.

It’s brave.

This show really doesn’t shy away from stuff. It’s pretty ballsy for a prime-time cable show, dealing with all the things I mentioned before. The best and most brilliant way it does that is through Rebecca. She is the main character, we’re with her most of the time, we see the world through her musical lens. But she’s crazy. That’s just the thing. At the start of the pilot we see her heavily medicated, something we don’t see fully why until the end of the second season. We know she has a whole range of issues which she sometimes admits to, sometimes doesn’t.

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She isn’t consistent. She isn’t reliable. She makes HORRIBLE choices over and over. She lies and she cheats and she wallows and self-medicates. She is morally corrupt a lot of the time. But we never hate her. We never dislike her because the shows sets her up in such a way that we get it, we get exactly why she does everything she does and we even feel for her because of it. The same goes for all of the characters. When it comes to mental health, it is on the nose. Rebecca needs therapy, which she goes to but doesn’t pay attention to a lot of the time. She has breakdowns, anxiety attacks and dissociative episodes. We see why Greg ends up where he does at the start of the second season as it has been fed in throughout the first. Even Josh Chan, smiley, sunny Josh Chan, doesn’t want to be alone with his thoughts and has his own form of self-medication in running into the arms of the closest pretty girl.

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All of the characters in this show are so, SO flawed and that’s why they’re fantastic. Honestly, every single character is so well constructed and explored in three dimensions. I’m gonna stop this section here because I’ve gotten ranty but it just makes me laugh how easily they do it. Other shows, most shows, have their 2-D characters that have no other function than to further the plot, or fill a diversity quota, or be a villain for villain’s sake. But that’s lazy! And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows how easy it is to just… like… write well. It also shows that you don’t have to shy away from the ugly things to create a character you can root for. In all honesty, I think it makes you root for them more if you see why they suck as people sometimes. It also calls itself, its characters and the viewer out on an underlying prejudices and makes it super clear that some of that shit is not okay.

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Finally…

It’s a musical.

‘Nuff said.

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The first 2 seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are available on Netflix. Season 3 airs in October 2017.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig – A Review

Story time.

As an unwritten rule, once it gets above 22 degrees Celsius in Britain, we freak out. If it gets above 25, the old ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, might be too hot’ conversation starts emerging. And then you get this past week. Consistently hitting between 26 and 31 for a full five days, people have NOT been handling it. Despite loving the sun in my head, my body hates it. I burn, not tan, I get heat induced headaches after half an hour in the sun and for some reason I look super tired all the time when it’s hot out. So this morning was a glorious surprise. I woke up, or should I say was woken up, by the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Then a breeze came through my window – a cool one. Then there was thunder. And as I lay there, listening to the sounds of stormy weather, I realised how lovely it felt to be awake and alive and feeling all those feelings and hearing all those sounds. Not least because I was excited by the prospect of being able to actually go outside for more than 20 minutes unprotected.

This leads me on to the book for this review. This book is one that I actually read last summer, during what, in retrospect, was a really bad brain… two months. It was lent to me by a friend who was lent it by his parents who said it was amazing and that everyone should read it. I don’t often pick up this kind of format, but this guy NEVER recommends books so I was kind of amazed enough to try it. Now, in a much more positive place, I read it again just to see. Here’s what I found.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

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The blurb of this book states it is ‘more than a memoir. It is a book about making the most of your time on earth’. It’s non-fiction but written like a diary format novel – think Bridget Jones, Sufia Khan is Not Obliged or the Georgia Nicholson series (there are a lot of nervy bs in this book too). It consists mostly of linear storytelling with inserts of lists, experimental stream-of-consciousness passages and internal dialogues reported in a playscript format. You follow Matt through 8 years of his life and various mental breakdowns. You meet his parents, his colleagues and his wonderful girlfriend-now-wife Andrea. You see, step-by-step, his ebbing and flowing, his sinking and rising and, finally, his recovery and stabilising. And it gets you, it truly does. I cried, I think. I remember feeling so relieved and pleased for him, but mostly I felt hope. I didn’t realise it at the time, but so much of Matt’s experiences were a little too easy for me to empathise with. A favourite quote is ‘I had never been one of those males who were scared of tears. I was a Cure fan, for God’s sake. I’d been emo before it was a term.’ My parents both love The Cure and when I was growing up my mum used to play their video albums to get me to go to sleep. Alongside The Smiths who, admittedly, I was listening to a bit young for how nihilistic they are, I always had that understanding that having emotions is fine! Expressing your emotions is cool! Cry if you want to, saying boy don’t cry is dumb! It’s those little things sprinkled through the book that make this so easy to engage with – Matt is real, you can feel that in the writing, and it makes his journey all the more engaging.

In terms of connection, Matt Haig really nails how to communicate complex states of mind. There’s a part where Matt lists what it feels like to have a panic attack, then recalls a time where he couldn’t go to the corner shop at the end of the road alone without having one. He gives you a clinical-looking list of steps or symptoms, then chucks you into a scenario in which those things happen like an unstoppable tide. The combination of objective understanding with emotional reaction means we, as readers, can feel just as frustrated as Matt when we can’t control the outcomes. We start expecting the worst before it can ever happen, and that, my friends, it what depression feels like. He uses a metaphor of the demon on his back, licking his ears while he’s at the theatre or in bed with his girlfriend. Matt Haig’s writing is nothing if not to the point and to the heart. His language isn’t fancy, but it is poetic and emotive. You understand everything that is going on at every stage in the process, something imperative for people to read. His simplicity and honesty translates so well because it provides the experience he had to other people in understandable and relatable terms. A Sunday Times bestseller, this book has reached not only the percentage of people who suffer from mental health problems, but the 2 in 3 people who don’t. It creates such an inescapable empathy through genuine care for him and his family that you find yourself completely understanding his brain along the way. It’s pretty powerful stuff.

I did, however, have some problems with it. Matt says himself in the book that we like to compartmentalise things and give labels to what is a much more complex set of factors than just OCD, schizophrenia or depression. I get the feeling that reading this book again would be a completely different experience each time, depending on the place that you’re in when you read it. When I read it, in the midst of a suffocating bout of depersonalisation and anxiety, it made me angry. I knew I had some of these things Matt was experiencing, but I didn’t react in the same way. I didn’t lash out at my family, I could go to the shop, I didn’t feel a demon licking my ear. I found myself getting defensive that I was doing it wrong. That my brain was faulty, but faulty in the wrong way. I couldn’t relate, and I was tempted to discard the book as reductionist because of this. But on a reread, I felt entirely different. I thought Matt relayed everything perfectly, sensitively and delicately to his own truth. I found it smart and funny in ways I didn’t during the first read. This reaction, to me, is fascinating. It’s a super quick read – it only took me a few days – so i’s definitely worth trying more than once to see if the same thing happens to you.

This makes it hard for me to really review it one way or the other. Reasons to Stay Alive is a brilliant memoir of one man’s experience. In one way, it felt isolating and confusing to someone who refused to acknowledge their own struggles. In another, it is gut-wrenching and close-to-the-bone but ultimately hopeful. Most importantly, it is educational and aware. Matt Haig is careful to insert lots of information and offhand advisory sentences to those who suffer from mental illness as well as to the carers of those who do. For everyone, it is worth reading. For some, like me, it is worth reading a couple times. It is honest, brutal, and, dare I say it, a really important signpost towards a larger conversation. This book opens avenues for discussion and understanding for both people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or any other manner of mental illness, and those who don’t. All aboard the empathy train, people!

An Introduction

Hi there. At the moment, there is absolutely no audience for this. In reality, there probably won’t really ever be an audience for it. This blog (??) is going to function for me as a kind of documentation of all the books I read in the coming year or so that feature, in some way, mental health as a focus. There are 3 main reasons for this:

  1. My dissertation. I am at university, studying for a BA in English Language and Literature. Wow, an English student writing a blog waah. Truth is, blogs take commitment. They take time and effort and inspiration and most of those things I don’t have in abundance. HOWEVER. I figured that if I could combine those things into one place, I’d suddenly have a thing I could really put effort into. I’ve just finished my second year and part of my last semester was taken up by creating a dissertation proposal. Now, I’m a language girl at heart. I love reading, of course, and literary theory and convention and what-does-it-all-mean??? but I came to uni loving language and that hasn’t really changed. Stylistics is my current jam (currant jam? There’s some phonological humour for you for free) which is essentially looking at how a text is constructed on the page and to what effect. It’s a strange combo of literature, language and psychology and I LAV it. For all the books I read, this will be the main focus as the title of my dissertation is, drumroll please… ‘Mind-Modelling and Stylistics in Neurologically Atypical Narration’!!! In other (less poncy) terms, what that means is I’m looking at how an author writes from the point of view of someone who does not have a neurologically or cognitively typical brain. I want to see just how writers recreate the mind of someone which is going to more than likely be completely different to the person reading it. At the moment, a full 6 months away from the beginning of my dissertation, I’m still stuck between whether to write on representations of cognitive or learning disorders such as autism, or on mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or dementia. This is going to be a kind of journey through books to see what I find most fascinating. As well as being supremely interesting to me, another reason for choosing this topic takes me onto my next point…
  2. Empathy. Sounds vague, I know, but let me explain. Studies show that people who read literary fiction frequently and from a young age develop better emotional intelligence skills and levels of empathy. I think I’ve always believed this but it wasn’t until I started my studies that I started understanding why. In one of my future posts I will talk about this in more depth, but the basis of this is in Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is essentially our ability to imagine and understand things from other peoples’ points of view and to afford them as much consciousness and emotional complexity as we view ourselves with. As an inherently empathetic person (code for: I cry at all the films) I find it extremely difficult not to run through every possible consequence my actions will have on people and make judgements based heavily on how it will effect others. True, that can be a hindrance sometimes, but it’s also a skill we need increasingly more of. In recent years, people have refused to acknowledge others complexly, as real people with lives and emotions and brains different to their own, instead inserting them into boxes labelled with dangerous things. But they say reading helps to change this way of thinking. As an English student, I feel it is my academic duty to try and read books by authors from walks of life different to my own. I am white, I am straight, I am English. I have a whole lot of privilege. So this task I have set myself is me trying to expand my understanding and empathy towards those who so often get the opposite: mental illness sufferers.
  3. My own mental health. For reasons I won’t get into right now, I’ve been struggling with mental health problems for the best part of two years now. Luckily, I’ve always had a good support network of family and friends and have access to professional support and counselling services. However, one of those most useful things I’ve found more my own peace of mind is seeing, hearing and reading the stories of other people who have struggled in a similar way to myself. Mental health is something everyone has. Wonderfully, the conversation around mental health has bee increasing exponentially in the past few years, but in Britain there is still a huge stigma about it. Especially with all the political tempestuousness, things like mental health do tend to get sidelined into the ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ mentality of dealing with problems. But there is a reason talking therapy is a thing. It works! Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. So, in a weird roundabout way, this is a talking therapy for me, intermingled with expanding my own emotional intelligence and empathy skills (and hopefully those of people reading) whilst all the while contributing to my dissertation and my degree.

So that’s it. Intro done. Now to get on with the books.