World Mental Health Day

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. I write about this both because it’s an important cause that affects many many people, and because books and reading have a major part to play in helping improve mental health.

This year World Mental Health Day has the theme “dignity in mental health” – dealing with stigma and discrimination, changing social attitudes and spreading public awareness of the nature of mental illness. These are all major aims of Bristol Mind, among others, and many people are holding coffee mornings and other events around the city – and the world – today.

As author Matt Haig discussed in his excellent article for the Telegraph yesterday, books can genuinely help those with depression and other mental-health issues. The Reading Agency works with GPs to prescribe books to alleviate mental-health problems through its Reading Well scheme. And this actually works. Reading reduces stress; it also improves empathy, memory and cognition – perhaps we should all be prescribed books!

Continue reading “World Mental Health Day”

Watching the vanishing sunset against the deepening blue

May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven
by A M Homes

This is a strange book that at first I – not exactly struggled with, but I did wonder if I should be engaging with it more. A lot happens and it covers quite a range of issues, but with a sense of humour and fun that kept me reading on.

It’s the story of a year in the life of Harry, a middle-aged history professor who has an obsession with Richard Nixon and, at the start of the book, a wife he seems to have no emotional engagement with. After Harry’s brother George has a car accident that leaves him mentally unbalanced and a young boy orphaned, Harry’s life changes out of all recognition, as does he.

“Was there ever a time when you thought – I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don’t know why.”

The book is very fast-moving to begin with, in fact I realised on page 20 I’d missed something huge even as another huge event was happening, but the bulk of the book is about the fallout from those events and the pace settles down.

Similarly, to begin with Harry’s narration is odd and unengaging but he gradually becomes a warmer character. If I were to summarise his story arc it would probably sound trite or possibly even soap-opera-like, but it’s actually funny and nuanced and, for the most part, feels real. The book deals with death and grieving, mental illness, loneliness, third world aid and the vulnerability of both children and old people. But it’s a pretty chunky book so there’s plenty of room to explore those issues without it getting too heavy.

“‘Were we always Jewish?’ Ashley asks.
The ceremony concludes, and one of the guests turns to me and says, ‘Given the circumstances, I think the rabbi did a very good job. What did you think?’
‘It’s my policy not to review funerals.'”

The humour grew on me as I got used to Harry, and was sometimes surreal, though it was also sometimes crude. And while Harry became a warmer character, I’m still not sure I really liked him by the end. I certainly cared how things turned out for him, which I guess is what matters.

“There’s something wonderfully melancholic about being outside on a spring evening watching the vanishing sunset against the deepening blue; the outlines of the old thick trees, full of bright fresh leaves, the surprising, gentle tickle of a breeze, and it somehow feels so good to be alive.”

Published 2012 by Granta Books.
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013.

Source: Amazon.

To gather together human debris

All Dogs Are Blue

All Dogs Are Blue
by Rodrigo de Souza Leão
translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler

This is a short, sharp shock of a book. It deals with serious, scary stuff but manages to be funny, exciting and superbly readable, as well as powerful and enlightening.

The story is narrated by the inmate of an asylum in Rio de Janeiro, fluidly moving between fact and hallucination, lucidity and paranoia. His imaginary friends are Rimbaud, who he considers reliable, and Baudelaire, who is not. Lots of things seem to happen in the course of 100 or so pages, but it’s not always possible to know what is real and what is imagined.

“I swallowed a chip yesterday…There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.”

The narrator switches between his own thoughts and reported speech with no punctuation or other indication, so it can sometimes be confusing who is being referred to. But then very little of this makes absolute sense. It is quite literally the rantings of a mad man. Which can be tough or sad, but can also be beautiful or insightful.

“I had moments of lucidity. They were few, but I had them. Sometimes the drugs they used work. But there are people who don’t get better, even with the medicine. What good is hospitalisation, then? To gather together human debris.”

The blue dog of the title is a toy dog that the narrator remembers from his childhood and misses. In her introduction to this translation, Deborah Levy argues that the blue dog is a version of the black dog of depression, which adds an interesting element to its appearances in the narrator’s memories and rants.

Another element that’s hard to forget when reading this book is that it’s semi-autobiographical. Souza Leão died in 2009 in a psychiatric clinic, after years struggling with mental illness. It really brings home the message that despite the comedy and outright craziness, this is the story of a human being, a man who is intelligent and artistic but who reduces his father to tears and forces his mother to admit she doesn’t want him to come home.

“I had my first attack at 15. At 36 I’ve still got problems. Wonder what the next problem will be? I’m a walking problem. It rains and I cry. I cry and it rains.”

Aside from the occasional morose moment, the tone stays light and witty throughout the darkest and the strangest scenes. And it does get pretty dark and pretty strange.

This was the only fiction of Souza Leão’s published during his lifetime, but I understand that more has been published since and I hope that it all finds translators as good as this.

Todos os cachorros são azuis published 2008.
This translation published 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I’m a subscriber to the publisher.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Crime and Punishment read-a-long end of week three


The Crime and Punishment read-a-long is hosted by Wallace over at Unputdownables. In week three we read from part 2, chapter 1 to the end of part 2 chapter 4. The official discussion post for this section will be posted over at Unputdownables but here are my thoughts.

I have now read further than I managed on my previous attempt, which is an achievement. However, though the text is more readable in this translation, I find main character Raskolnikov just as frustrating. I’m going to plough straight into the plot so here be spoilers.

I suppose I expected more of an insight into Raskolnikov’s mind than we have had so far. Maybe that’s to come. Or perhaps we’re supposed to infer his thoughts from his actions. But I am finding him inscrutable. Why why why does he turn down a good job offer, throw away money from his friend and try to reject money from his mother? Is he just ill, as his friends think? Is this a hypochondriac or even psychosomatic response to his fear of being caught? Or is it guilt/remorse? Certainly it seems to be all fear and no remorse.

Also, Raskolnikov has friends! Who really seem to care about him. Is he/was he actually a nice guy? Or are Razumikhin and Zosimov just extraordinarily nice people?

So many questions raised by this week’s reading! Which I think is a good sign. And for the first time in this novel I marked a quote that struck me:

“A new and irresistible sensation of boundless, almost physical loathing for everything round him, an obstinate, hateful, malicious sensation, was growing stronger and stronger with every minute. He loathed everyone he met – their faces, their walk, their gestures. He thought that if anyone were to speak to him, he would spit and snarl at them like an animal.”

Can you see why I am yet to be convinced I will ever like this character?

UPDATE: The official discussion post is now up.

In her head

Wish Her Safe at Home
by Stephen Benatar

This book surprised me. It had been on my wishlist for a long time but when I saw it at the library and recognised it from this discussion, the only detail I remembered was that it’s set in Bristol. Which seemed as good a reason as any to pick it up. But sadly, Bristol is not the focus of the book; really it could be set anywhere. Thankfully, the book has other things going for it.

It’s the story of Rachel, a middle-aged spinster living a dreary life in London until, out of the blue, she inherits a house in Bristol. On a whim she decides to move into it, giving up her job and abandoning her flatmate for a suddenly impassioned restoration project. As the book goes on it becomes clear that Rachel’s newfound giddy happiness and occasional sudden lows signal increasing mental instability.

It’s very cleverly done. The story is narrated by Rachel and at first you accept the complete change of attitude, her newfound confidence and ability to make friends. But the hints get stronger; the version of events changes from one telling to the next, and you start to question everything – not just whether it happened the way she first described, but whether it happened at all.

Conversely, I liked Rachel more as the book went on. Initially I found her a bit of a cold fish, possibly on the autism spectrum if her awkward encounters with strangers were anything to go by, but then she would reveal an awareness of being distant, possibly deliberately, that didn’t fit with that assessment. But later on, Rachel tries so hard to be happy and good and charming that when you see the cracks you feel bad for her, or at least I did.

One of the forms of Rachel’s mania is a tendency to quote or, more often, sing snatches from classic books, films or plays. She displays great knowledge on this score and often lost me (as indeed she would lose her audience, when she had one) as she jumped from one character to another. But through these quotes she sometimes expressed a truth that she couldn’t in her own words:

“‘I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!'”
[From Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire]

In the end , this is a very moving account of mania from a time (1981) when people weren’t so familiar with terms like bipolar disorder and manic depression as we are now. I wonder if Benatar was a little ahead of his time, because this book deserves to have become far better known. I think this would make a fantastic book club read – there’s so much to discuss that I can’t raise here without revealing too much of the plot.

The edition I read (a 2007 reprint) includes an excellent introduction by the eminent John Carey, an illuminating essay that is far more insightful about this book than I could be. But I would still recommend you save that for after reading the book itself – let yourself enjoy the guessing game before you unravel it.

First published 1982 by Bodley Head. Reissued by the New York Review of Books.

SEE ALSO: review by Stuck in a book

The edge of sanity

Time Out of Joint
by Philip K Dick

Although this is part of the SF Masterworks series, the SF content of this novel is fairly slim and if anything the big reveal is a little disappointingly convoluted. For the most part the novel is about sanity and our acceptance of the reality around us. And in that respect it is brilliant.

A recent Guardian books blog suggested that SF, and Philip K Dick in particular, has great ideas but terrible writing. In my experience that’s complete rubbish. Sure, there’s some badly written SF but that’s true for any genre – and non-genre – writing. This is my first Dick novel and I thought it extremely well written. It’s not flowery or overly descriptive, which if anything is a style I prefer. The characters are complex and sympathetic, the majority of the story emanating from their thoughts, though the narration is third-person.

Middle-aged Ragle Gumm lives in suburbia with his sister, her husband and their child. Gumm stays home all day, making his living from a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?”, at which he is the national champion. He seduces the neighbour’s young, pretty wife, as much from boredom or a feeling that he ought to have a lovelife as any real attraction. He’s aware that his life is a little unusual, while at the same time being docile and unchanging.

But there are times when Gumm is convinced that it’s all very wrong, that the world around him isn’t real, that there’s a conspiracy at work. Perhaps he’s just insane. Or it could be a little of both.

What makes the story especially intriguing is that Gumm’s brother-in-law and nephew also notice oddities, irregularities that convince them that something strange is afoot, and the three of them work together to gather evidence and figure it out. But it is Gumm who is convinced that the world revolves around him, or that it appears to.

The depiction of uncertain sanity is so well crafted that almost anything becomes believable, because it could always be Gumm’s paranoia talking. As a picture of paranoia the novel is near-perfect. However, as I said, the attempt to explain everything away in the end with an SF storyline is a let-down. Unless, of course, you consider that section to be when Gumm passes the tipping point into pure madness. Which, now I think of it, works pretty well.

An afterword by Lou Stathis helpfully explains where this novel sits in Dick’s vast legacy of fiction. I will definitely be following his advice and adding The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to my to-read shelf.

First published 1959 by Lippincott.
ISBN 978-0-5750-7458-3