Sunday, 25 September 2016

Post 43: Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig

I am sorry for doing this to you, writing two blog post in as many days.  I am also not sorry at all, because this book, which I utterly consumed in just two sittings, is brilliant.

This is another book selected by one of my students for her A Level coursework.  I am just sad that I am not her main supervisor!  Matt Haig has written frankly, honestly, openly and sensibly about depression. And please, don't be put off right here, right now.  Read to the end of the review, then read the book!

I have worked with people who have been depressed, I am friends with some who suffer and I have family who accept their battle with the black dog on an almost daily basis.  Perhaps even more real to me is the increase in depression in young people.  The pressure on students to be the best they can be is far greater than anything I experienced whilst at school or university.  They are told that failure is not an option and they are told what failure looks like.  Hence, they look to their teachers to give them the answers, the right answers, so that that they can be guaranteed success.  They risk nothing and fear everything because to take risks is to invite failure in.  And if they do fail, or achieve less than their targets, they are at risk of inviting in worthlessness, anxiety and depression.  In my mind, it is not coincidental that there are more children and young people self-harming and starving themselves than there has ever been before.  They are not weaker than we were, or  our parents before us, they are just exposed to more intense pressure much earlier.  

Paradoxically, this is one of my main reasons to stay in teaching.  I try to be a voice of reason over the clamour of a pressurised, target-ridden education system.  I teach A Level.  I want to share a love of words and of books.  I want to enthuse students and help them to reach their potential.  But I also want them to realise that life has many different paths and that failure to achieve A's is not failure at all.

Matt Haig's book, Reasons To Stay Alive is a personal story of his own battle with anxiety and depression.  He first "went under" at the age of 24.  This in itself, interested me.  He had succeeded. He was a good government statistic.  He had finished A levels and got a Masters Degree. He had a steady girlfriend.  He was working abroad.  He was living the life.
How to Live..forty pieces of advice...#20
 "Look at trees.  Be near trees. Plant trees. (Trees are great)

But that's the point.  We teach our young people to strive, but what if when they get there, the view from the top is no better than it was at the bottom?  We know that pressure continues, and it is exerted from all sides.  Be better. At everything.  Look younger.  Be thinner.  Buy the latest phone.  Achieve popularity.  Have followers in all aspects of social media.  Be promoted.  Own a house.  Pay for it. 

This extract really spoke to me about modern lifestyle and our wellbeing: "Human brains -in terms of cognition and emotion and consciousness - are essentially the same as they were at the time of Shakespeare or Jesus or Cleopatra or the Stone Age.  They are not evolving with the pace of change.  Neolithic humans never had to face emails or breaking news or pop-up ads or Iggy Azalea videos [I confess at this point to never having heard of the latter!] or a self-service checkout at a strip-lit Tesco Metro on a busy Saturday night.  Maybe instead of worrying about upgrading technology and slowly allowing ourselves to be cyborgs, we should have a little peek at how we could upgrade our ability to cope with all this change."

And no, I'm not naive enough to think that technology is the root of all evil, (I'm writing a blog, for goodness sake!), but it has made us multi-taskers.  Child two is a demon at it.  He can be seemingly absorbed in his phone but then beat us all at University Challenge and tell us breaking news that he has just read on twitter!  In a recent sermon, the very sensible Sam Allberry preached that in this modern world we are justifed by our own busy-ness.  We have lost the capacity to be still.  The Revd Sam advocated time spent with God, to listen, to read and to be.  Matt Haig is not propounding faith as a solution in his book, but he similarly recognises the need to breathe, the need to be idle, to pause and take stock.  We need to be as much (or even more perhaps) than we need to do.  That is counter-cultural.

Matt Haig writes very well indeed. More than anything I have read before, his description of depression and anxiety helped me to understand how it might feel to be so reduced by the illness.  It is also a profoundly positive book -  it offers hope and gives practical strategies.  It doesn't preach, but by the end we are left in no doubt that we all need each other.  We need to be kind.  We need to care. The opposite of depression and anxiety is not strength, but love.  Matt Haig received love from his girlfriend, (now wife) and his family.  He learnt to love himself again and through this book, he is showing hope and love to a myriad of readers who can benefit from his experience.

Let's talk to each other, listen to each other and ease one another's burdens.  Let's not say yes to the demands and pressures that are becoming so mainstream. Instead, let us grasp life, look about us and realise we are not determined by what we achieve, but by who we are.

Compelling, well written.  One of the best books I have had the privilege to immerse myself in.

I hope, Matt Haig, that this is a review that fits into one of your "Things that make (sometimes) make me feel better!"

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Post 42: The History Room and A Clockwork Orange

"Balance the bits about reading with bits about your life."  This was the wisdom of child one as I embarked on my blogging adventure.  This is all well and good in essence, but sometimes, my life is a tad dull!  Since my last post, I have returned to work after the summer break, seen child one off to her third year at Uni, had three fillings (ouch!) and had an Ofsted inspection. Enough said.

In the next blog, I am hoping to wax lyrical about the Henley Literary Festival as I have tickets to five events; but for those who have high hopes of my creative writing, I am sad to report that my entry for the short story competition this year, wasn't even longlisted... If you want to read last year's winning entry, however, click here!

Also coming up on the horizon is the big step of child two going off to Uni, leaving me and Mr M as empty this space!

My reading has been diverse this month. Beginning with one of my stash lovingly bought and brought home from Barter Books in Alnwick, I read The History Room by Eliza Graham.  Its front cover appealed to me: I could imagine sitting on the rocking chair looking out of the leaded windows to the well tended lawns and gardens beyond.  Its tag line, "The past is never past," whilst a little cliched, suggested an interesting story.

But I have to confess to being disappointed.

The plot is potentially rich and complex, but each strand was dealt with perfunctorily and too rapidly resolved.  Meredith,the central character has come to live and work at her father's private school in the aftermath of a rejection from her husband.  Horribly wounded in Afghanistan, Hugh cannot bear to be in her presence and he sends her away. This plot strand is in itself, worthy of detailed observation and retelling, but as with most of the novel, it never does more than skim the surface.  The book seems to acknowledge big human issues, but fails to fully explore any in sufficient depth to gain real reader response.

Meredith's father is a widow, but that doesn't stop his marriage also being central to the plot. Another woman from his past is made evident from the early chapters, and it is clear that one of the students may have a link to his boyhood as a young man in Czechoslavakia.  The history of this country and its invasion by Russians in 1968 is also cursorily dealt with; again, I felt a whole novel could be dedicated to this strand.
Perhaps most bizarre was the plot surrounding the appearance of a dead child in the history room. Quickly recognised as a prank in bad taste, the baby was actually a reborn doll.  I had never heard of these, but a quick search on the internet confirms that they do exist and can be given the features of a real child.  I find this creepy, but it served as a catalyst for the discoveries that are ultimately made about Meredith's father.
Frequent repetition of ideas...the doll, her husband, two characters Emily and Olivia and her father's past made this novel unchallenging.  I felt that I was being told the story rather than shown through the strands. This had potential but ultimately left me with no feelings of empathy for any of the characters. This one will find its back to a charity shop despite its lovely front cover!

My second September read couldn't have been more different, though I am not sure that I liked it any better! This one was read for one of my A Level students who is using A Clockwork Orange as his free choice text in a coursework comparison task. It is a modern classic, and one I feel that I should have read before now, so I welcomed the opportunity to fill a gap in my literary canon.  This book is, if nothing else, odd!  It is broadly speaking, a dystopian novel.  At its heart is an experimental penal reform programme that seeks to cure young criminals of their desire to re-offend.

The lead-up to the prison section is a brutal rendition of frequent drug-taking and subsequent violent binges.  Rapes, beatings and murder are recounted in detail which is sanitised only by the peculiar vocabulary invented by Anthony Burgess for this novel.  If you have never read the novel, here is an extract to show you what I mean: " Billyboy was something that made me want to sick just to viddy his fat grinning litso, and he always had this von of very stale oil." Exactly!  The neologisms are in fact, cleverly invented and it does serve two purposes; firstly it removes the extent of the violence from the sections of the novel where lawlessness is uppermost, but secondly it creates a sociolect for Alex and his young associates.  This sets them apart from the millicents (police) and the other adults they encounter.  I would recommend just reading the book without trying to translate the new words.  After a few chapters it becomes easier to understand through context rather than treating text as a foreign language.

My student wants to explore empathy in the novel.  This is interesting, especially as I have already slated the previous novel for not really enabling any full reader response.  I need to be able to immerse myself in a story to fully enjoy the experience, and I found A Clockwork Orange repellent rather than something I could really relate to.  And this isn't because of its genre.  Margaret Atwood has written many dystopian novels, some with extreme violence and criminality, but there is always a central character who evokes empathy.  Alex,the protagonist in the Burgess novel, failed to move me fully, though I can appreciate that he is, in his own way, a victim of the system.  When he is imprisoned and receiving a treatment that he is too naive to investigate or refuse, then some sympathy is created.  When he is released too, we see him struggle in a way that allows some empathetic response.  Indeed, I found his release the most interesting part of the novel.  Here Alex meets many of his former victims, but each meeting is unplanned and serendipitous.  They are also unlikely and require significant suspension of disbelief.  At this point in the novel, I thought that the purpose might have been to show how we are all trapped to re-live moments in our lives and never be allowed to change or fully move on.  But I don't think this is Burgess's ultimate message.  It seems to be something to do with growing up.  This is a coming of age story, a bildungsroman with violence guaranteed.  And it is this that is so chilling.  Burgess seems to accept that the young will always be reckless, will always be blind and deaf to reason and thus will need to go through rebellion to emerge, fully-formed on the other side. Whilst we can all accept there is some truth to this, I hope and pray that most young people do not feel the need for such bloodlust as is central to Alex's life.

And nobody comes out of the novel well.  The government is corrupt and controlling and those in opposition are equally so. The chaplain is a drunkard and Alex's parents are weak.  His friends are disloyal and compassion comes at a price. I found myself looking about me for some hope in this earthly existence!

I think that although the book was worth adding to my reading list, I won't be revisiting it in a hurry!

Now, the sun is shining and bulbs need planting.  I am going to look up from the depressing depiction of humanity and turn to the glories of nature.  Monty Don has it right when he says gardening is therapy!

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Post 41: Where I Become Uncharacteristically Sentimental:The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

I know that as a teacher, I am privileged to get six weeks off in the summer. I enjoy the opportunity to totally switch off from work; an opportunity that many folk never get once they start in employment. But boy,do those weeks whizz much faster than a half term somehow!

My latest read was a great one to end the holidays. The Versions of Us is really three stories in one. Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge university at the age of 19 when she veers off the road on her bicycle when distracted by a dog.  This is the only absolute.  Everything that follows is a series of opportunities...opportunities missed, opportunities taken and the consequences of the decisions that each character makes at different stages.  The only other certainty is that their relationship is at the core of the novel, no matter which version we are reading.

At the heart of the novel is decision making.  We can all empathise with  those moments in life where a choice presents itself.  We can all wonder, "what if?" On the syllabus a few years ago was the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken,(reproduced below).  It is a beautiful poem and its sentiment is played out fully in The Versions of Us. I wonder which decisions you would cite as the one that made all the difference to the life that you ended up living? I have a few.

One of the most determining moments occurred when I was a little younger than the protagonist, Eva. I was 16 and called to an interview for my local sixth form.  Not being academic, but being a solid, dependable worker who was good with people, my form tutor of five years had recommended that I leave school and find a job in a travel agent or something similar.  Not yet ready to work, I took her advice but decided to apply for a BTEC in Business to give me a head start for when I did apply for jobs.  But that interview changed my whole life.  The teacher who interviewed me was a stranger.  I can't even remember his name.  But I am eternally grateful to him.  He talked to me, saw that I had taken O- Level English early and done well and wouldn't let me leave the room until I had chosen three A-level subjects.  He discounted the advice from my form tutor and urged me to aim higher.

That moment catapulted me to A-Level English and a love of literature shared willingly by Mr Naylor and Mr Williams at Cirencester Deer Park Sixth Form. (I never thanked them enough, but they were both amazing teachers and opened up books for me in a way that has given me a lifetime of reading). They then encouraged me to go to university.  No-one in my family had done so before. It was at university that I met my husband and so the version of my life is written.

And so it is in this novel.  Eva and Jim connect.  They date, they stay together, they meet other partners, they remain acquaintances...all possible, indeed plausible.  Laura Barnett makes each version of Eva's life entirely convincing.Part of the fun of reading the book, is deciding which version you want to be "true." Even the ending has three versions.  

What I liked is that none of the versions is sugar coated. None of the lives lived is perfect.  The inherent flaws of humanity permeate each story, and so none of the narratives is without pain.

This book has a lighter style than other multiple narratives such as Life After Life. It is ambitious, beginning with Eva's birth and ending up with her in her seventies. The stories introduce us to a myriad of characters, with Eva's mother Miriam being the one that resonated the most with me. I enjoyed the novel.  It has, as you can probably tell, led me to reflect on life's turns and decisions made. In the cover photo, you can see the version of me in 1984 with my Granny.  My children still cannot comprehend that I was only 14 in that picture!  And it bears only a passing resemblance to the version of me that I am currently working on! The second photo is of me enjoying my last week of the school holidays with Child 1.  We were at the top of the O2 on a glorious day.  And speaking of roads less travelled....I had asked hubby first and then Child 2... both were non-plussed about climbing the outside of the London landmark...and so I turned to Child 1, who took a different decision and we had an amazing day out together.

Six weeks off is a pleasure and a privilege.  The roads I have travelled this summer have been many and I am blessed to have shared different ones with different people. Each person brings something different to my life and I am grateful.

But I am risking great sentiment on the back of this book review and  I must stop!  I'll leave you with Robert Frost's poem.  Perhaps you can share your life determining moments?  Or tell me which version of Laura Barnett's novel you wanted most to be "true."

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;        5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,        10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.        15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference