What I’ve been reading this autumn

Books I've read this autumn

June has arrived, and despite the first couple of days being wonderfully sunny, the grey has started setting in. Before autumn completely disappears from memory, I wanted to share some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past few months – the autumn collection.

When I gathered them together, I noticed there was a bit of a theme going on. Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve been searching for until you look back and see a pattern. There are obvious themes which at the moment clearly appeal to me. In summary:

  • Novels about women in their 40s and 50s, dealing with family dynamics (teenagers, ageing parents, careers vs other priorities, rediscovering their role and purpose amongst it all),
  • Memoirs by women in their 40s and 50s dealing with serious health issues while being pulled in all directions by the competing needs of those they care for
  • Non fiction books on parenting differently and a new way to look at depression and anxiety and how to manage them.

Sometimes it helps to anticipate potential challenges ahead (or, in the case of parenting teenagers, have already started). I’m obviously drawn to books which help show a way through, in case I need them. Clearly, this mid stage is where I’m at!

Anyway, to the books. The topics sound heavy in some ways, however all of them were balanced with some form of lightness – quips, or quirkiness, or interactions which showed that challenging times can still often include positives.

All of them I really enjoyed, and recommend – and I’m including a few quick points on each, in case you’re looking for a good read:

  • Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere – This is a slow burn (excuse the pun), slightly melodramatic, beautiful constructed novel. The externally picture perfect life of the Richardson family, a left leaning (outwardly), successful (socially and professionally) family, within a US suburb of the same nature, is disrupted through the arrival of new tenants, a single mother and her teenage daughter.

What I loved – the relationship dynamics – the voices and actions rang true to me even when the scenarios themselves were kind of overblown – the pulling apart of carefully constructed society masks and the impact that created, the thoughts of ‘what would I do if, however unlikely, I got myself in that situation?’ (oh how tangled things can become), and, of course, the setting. I am such a sucker for a book where the setting – the town, the street, the individual locations – become key characters in their own right. This novel, to me, captured a planner’s utopia so well, and as such, exposed some of the darkness that can be generated within excessively controlled lives and environments.

  • Emma Healey, Whistle in the Dark – I’d read Emma’s earlier novel, Elizabeth is Missing, last year, and was enthralled by the sensitive way she captured the challenges of living with, and caring for, someone with dementia (note – it was not a gentle read, but it was so true to life). So when I saw she’d written a new novel, I rushed to buy it. This novel revolved around the Jen’s family – her husband, elder daughter, mother and parents in law, and most specifically, her younger daughter, 15 year old Lana. Lana is found after four days missing, changed, but with no memory (maybe) of what has happened.

What I loved – It’s hard to believe the author is only in her early 30s, and not a mother of a teenager daughter (and a daughter in her 20s). She captures beautifully the overthinking of a mother desperately trying not to be a helicopter mother, the parenting challenges when you know you need to back off although up until recently you’d been the one to solve all the problems, and the frustrating but ultimately valuable support of a partner who takes a different approach (maybe it’s a Dad thing?) There’s genuine affection amongst the frustration, at times I thought ‘Is she in my head?’ as word for word she phrased things (or the daughters did) exactly as I would, and there are some really funny moments amongst the concern.The only aspect I found frustrating is that there are no chapters – the segments range from half a page to say three. This frustrated me more than I would have expected – clearly I like to have a roadmap of where I’m heading. However, this might not be something that bothers you as much as me (and if it does, there is so much good that outweighs this stylistic weirdness).

  • Andrea J Buchanan, The Beginning of Everything – This is the story of discovery, as the author seeks to build herself back from a neurological condition; a tear in the membrane covering her brain and spinal cord which meant her brain literally dropped, no longer cushioned. While she moved from doctor to doctor, specialist client on one side of the US to the other, she was also navigating a divorce (in train prior to the tear), caring for teenagers, finding who she was when she couldn’t think clearly, sit up for any length of time. Who was ‘Me’, when ‘I’m’ not really there?Be aware – At times, this book can feel somewhat weighty as she seeks to balance two big themes. The author is intent in explaining the evolution of understanding of the condition (which is apparently not as uncommon as I’d thought considering I’d never heard of it and neither, from the sounds of it, had many of the medical profession – and she is now an advocate for further research and awareness raising). At the same time, she is explaining how it affected her, her children (at a time when they were discovering themselves – the push-pull of the teenage years), the challenges of reshaping her future and negotiating a new life as a single women. It’s ambitious, and quite solid going at times.

What I loved – This memoir is filled with wonderful insights. I found myself dog-earing page after page (because, yes, I am one of those people – plus it’s my book, so I can chose to!). I’m writing too much to share any quotes now, but they may come out in the future – let’s see. Plus, wonderful to read of her recovery.

  • Georgia Blain, The Museum of Words – If you haven’t read Georgia Blain’s previous book, Between a Dog and a Wolf, get it into your hands as soon as you can because it is so wonderful. The horrible irony is that it relates to a woman whose mother has just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and, in real life, Georgia Blain was developing the same cancer as she wrote (discovered after the novel was finished).

What I loved – This memoir is Georgia Blain’s attempt to capture not the progress of the disease, as such, but the impact it creates a person for whom words, and writing, have been her central way of communicating, of caring and connecting with those she loves, the way of gaining satisfaction professionally, the way she understands herself.  As she says, ‘Language is at the core of our being. The way in which we express ourselves is inextricably linked with who we are and how others see us‘.  Who are you when you can no longer make these connections? And – thanks to the help of her husband and editor in particular – we can see that, even when the words cannot come together as they have in the past, the essence of the person can still be communicated. It’s ultimately an uplifting memoir, as it is acts almost as her own obituary.

  • Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock – I picked up this book in a seconbd hand store, as it was published in 2008. Although it’s not brand new, in many ways it reads as new, even for those of us who’ve been reading up almost obsessively on the best way to parent (see – trying not to helicopter parent). From talking about why kids lie and how that’s not always bad, to the avoiding of ‘politically incorrect’ subjects because we don’t want to manipulate kids (and actually, we end up doing that very thing, because kids are not stupid and they see, and wonder what’s wrong with the topics we avoid), through to teenage rebellion being a positive (which is reassuring, I guess), the book debunks many of the ideas that, even ten years on, many of us still hold to be true.

What I enjoyed – I particularly liked the way the authors backed up the contentions with evidence – not heavy handed, and full of application. It’s captured in the summary of the book – many of the aspects we think are inherently wrong for kids, or descriptions we apply to kids, comes from looking at things through adult eyes. From a kids perspective, it isn’t, nor will it lead to long term benefits. One example is the undermining effect of praise – for adults, praise can be motivating, however, if not well directed, praising kids can flip them from being intrinsically motivated to seeking external validation (the opposite of what we really want). In the light of this, I won’t say any more, other than to recommend it a book worth dipping in and out of.

  • Johann Hari, Lost Connections – This book, subtitled ‘uncovering the real causes of depression and the expected solutions’, received quite a bit of press earlier in the year. It’s an example of either / or thinking, both from the author, and from those reviewing or critiquing it. The author, based on a fair bit of research, contends that most depression is not caused by a chemical inbalance and therefore cannot be overcome by artificial chemicals (ie. medications). Which seems extreme to me, having read it. Equally implausible, however, is the reaction from some to the book, which was that it was completely flawed, and in any event, the author (who has had previous experience with some slight manipulation of truth in previous writing) could never be trusted. I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

What I really enjoyed – I found the idea of a multitude that ‘bio-psycho-social’ factors all play a role in many forms of depression very convincing. Many of the factors he raises are not new, but the way they are brought together and identified as factors that can make us feel disconnected is. We can be disconnected from ourselves (our purpose, our ability to relate with others, our bodies if we’re unhealthy), from others (through isolation, meaningful work and the like) and from our environment. If we address these elements, we are likely to find that a broader range of ‘anti-depressants’ are more effective than the one (medical) or two (therapy) that are so often prescribed.

There will still be people who, for biological reasons, require medication, and for many of us, therapy is necessary and beneficial. However, a greater focus on other ‘anti-depressants could well help to mitigate the effects of depression for many people, or potentially avoid triggering it in the first place, the approaches outlined in this book could have broader social benefits. And that’s got to be a good thing.

So much for my quick points! Hopefully though, I’ve provided you with some ideas for your own choices. And what better time of the year to read than winter? Which provokes the question – what should I read next? What would you recommend?


One thought on “What I’ve been reading this autumn

  1. Thanks for those recommendations! I wish I could recommend something back. I’ve got a stack of books in my bedroom that just don’t appeal at the moment. I’ve also just read Lost Connections and I felt pretty much the same way: good points and bad points, sometimes annoying but mostly interesting.
    Someone recommended Dervla Murphy’s biography, Wheels Within Wheels, so I’m planning to track that down. Will let you know if it’s good…


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