Sunday, 18 June 2017

Reading is bad for you...

Reading gives me solace when I'm upset and adds to my joy when I'm happy but there are times when I must admit that reading probably does more harm than good. Well it's not reading itself that's the problem; it's what I am reading.

I suffer from anxiety, which most of the time is like having a very mild case of tinnitus - I am aware of anxious thoughts and feelings, but I am usually able to ignore them. However, sometimes, my anxiety dominates and I find it very difficult to focus on anything else. On these occasions, my instinct is to Google "answers" to whatever it is I am fretting about. This I've learnt is absolutely the worse thing I can do. If there was a definite answer to the thing I was anxious about, I wouldn't be anxious about it. For example, I may not be happy about the fact that tomorrow's Monday (obvs, I am writing this on a Sunday) and may even be anxious about what may happen tomorrow but I am not anxious that it may be Monday tomorrow because I know it is Monday tomorrow. The point is I am not going to find a solution via Google (assuming I haven't searched for "how to deal with anxious thoughts" etc.).

In fact, rather than finding answers, I find more reasons to be anxious - I typically manage to come across all of the blog posts/articles that have been written by people who have similar anxious thoughts to me (humbling in a way; our irrational thoughts are rarely unique to us). Even if I come across something factual, I still tend to interpret it as "confirmation" of my worse fears. Anxiety is very manipulative in that way; your thinking is skewed, so you're not capable of logically reviewing information. Therefore, I am slowly learning to stay away from Google when I am having an attack of anxiety; I also, if my anxiety is related to national or international events, avoid reading the news.

As well as avoiding the news when I am anxious, I try to limit my exposure to the news to prevent myself from becoming anxious. The news, particularly of late, always seems to be filled with stories of horrific events. Therefore, for the sake of my sanity, I try to avoid reading/watching the news in the evenings or on the weekends. If something terrible has happened, me knowing or not knowing about it will make no difference - it will still have happened when I do decide to engage with the news again. Keeping up to date with the news is obviously important but sometimes it's equally important to switch off.

Another benefit to "switching off" is that when you do decide to look at the news, you're more likely to get the full facts. On the night of the awful London Bridge/Borough Market attack, I made the decision to turn off my phone and go to bed rather than, as I had done with the Paris attacks, read about things in real time on Twitter. No good, I thought, could come of me reading people's speculations about what was happening. And as I live in East London, miles away from London Bridge, I wasn't able to offer any assistance to those caught up in the attack. The next day, I made an effort to find out what had happened (when by that time, the basic facts had been established) and make sure my London friends were safe (they were). Me waiting a while to learn about the attack didn't, of course,  make it any less horrific but I was at least more able to deal with the news.

OK, so the title of this post really should have been "some reading" is bad for you. But, that wouldn't be as clickbaity would it? Reading, like a lot of things, is neither good nor bad. It's what you read and what you're feeling at the time that's important. Sometimes, it's better to take a break from the world outside,

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Review: The Keeper of Lost Things

The Keeper of Lost Things The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely, charming read.

My inner cynic did feel that it was all a bit twee, but I told her to shut up and stop being such a miserable so and so. There's so many "worthy" books out there that seem to want to drum it home just how awful the world is that it's really good to read a book that essentially suggests people are lovely and that even the non lovely ones probably have issues.

A perfect book for anyone needing cheering up.

View all my reviews

Monday, 1 May 2017

A frustrating reading year

2017, so far, has been a hit and miss reading experience - with the emphasis on the miss. While I've read a couple of books that have been five-star reads (such as Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg), I have read several that have been a bit, for wont of a better word, meh. 

I think the problem has been that I have changed how I choose which books to read. My usual approach is to read books on ad hoc basis - in other words, I pick up books that I fancy reading at that particular time. However, this year, I've adopted a more prescriptive approach; I've read books because they were part of a project I was doing or because they were on my "to read" list. For example, I read Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair because it was part of my All things Jane Eyre project. To be fair, I found the book entertaining but it didn't exactly set my world on fire (as evidence by my review). Had I not decided to attempt the aforementioned project, I don't think I would have read the book at all (well, I certainty wouldn't have bought it; I might have got it from the library if I had happened to see it there).

Equally, the only reason I read The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak was because it had been on my to read list for a good year. Admittedly, I did give the book four stars but, as I explain in my review, I found completing the book a chore if I'm honest. That brings me to another reason for thinking that 2017 is not shaping up to be a good reading year - I have spent too long reading books that I should have accepted that I wasn't enjoying sooner.

Having built up a rather large "DNF" - aka didn't finish - pile over the years, I was determined to DNF fewer books this year (see My New Year Reading Resolution). This has resulted in me continuing to read books that I wasn't enjoying or trying to finish books I had DNF'ed on numerous occasions beforehand. I've been trying to read The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee for years now and was determined to get to the end of it this year; alas, although I managed to get roughly halfway this time, I gave up again. I am just going to have to accept that while I do find the topic interesting, I am not so interested in cancer that I want to read 571 pages (it's certainly a lengthy tome) about it. Plus, as a medical editor, reading the book did smack a little of a busman's holiday.

Going forward, I am will be reverting to my usual approach of choosing books to read based on my mood at the time. Also, I am going to be quicker to abandon a book. I do think it's a waste - having spent money on it  - to DNF a book but I think it's equally a waste to read a book that you're not enjoying (that time could be spent reading a book you do enjoy!).

Ultimately, I thinking reading is an element of luck - some years, it's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good books; others seems like the Sahara desert. Therefore while I hope that I have a few more "hits" in the next eight months, I'll be alright if I don't. You gotta take the rough with the smooth as they say (who's they? Any why are they such an authority of life?)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

How I read (not that much)

This year, so far, I've read 19 books

Having watched several "How I read" - a tag that's currently doing the rounds - vlogs. I've realised that I really don't read that much for someone who claims to be an avid reader. Obviously, I probably read a lot more than someone who doesn't claim to be into reading but, compared with other "avid readers", the amount of books I get through seems somewhat paltry. For example, in her March Wrap Up video, the vlogger Lauren  ("from Lauren and the Books" as she tends to introduce herself) says she read 15 books "in the month of March". That's only four fewer books than I've read (19) since January (and I thought I was doing pretty well to read that much)!

I could claim lack of time as a reason for reading so comparatively little, but that's a bit of a cop out. Yes, I have a full-time job and several commitments outside of work, but I am guessing those who read 100 books plus a year have various commitments that they have to juggle as well. The reality is - like with anything in life - if you truly want to do something, you try to find ways of doing it. Therefore if I wanted to read more books, I would find ways of reading more. In fact, there are plenty of times when I could be reading but I choose not to.

For example, unless I am particularly engrossed in a book, I tend to watch telly than read in the evenings. After a long day, I just want to disengage my brain and watch something a bit mindless. I find the prospect of attempting to understand a plot or characters too taxing. That said, I do always read a few pages of whatever book I'm reading before going to sleep; I just rarely - if ever - spend a whole evening reading.

My daily commute to work - one hour each way (the joys of living in London, hey) - probably provides the greatest opportunity for reading, but actually I tend not to get that much done. Well, it is probably more accurate to say I don't get much book reading done as I tend to read other things when travelling to and from work. I read a newspaper in the mornings - unless the news is too scary and likely to trigger my anxiety (which, funnily enough, has been happening quite a bit of late) - and often read a magazine on the way home. Mind you, during rush hour, reading anything at all can be physically impossible at times. When you've squeezed yourself onto a Tube train, reading a book/paper with one hand while you cling onto a pole with the other is a bit of an art form - particularly if you're rammed up against other commuters and can barely move.

Another opportunity to read more would be to listen to audiobooks. I used to be quite snobby about the idea that audiobooks counted as reading, but I am now beginning to realise that they provide just a different way of "reading". For some people of course, such as those with visual impairments, audiobooks are the only form of reading available to them. Therefore to say that listening to audiobooks is not reading is to be dismissive of how whole sections of society experience books. I have, in fairness, considered listening to audiobooks but I find the price prohibitive. On Audible, they can be as much as £20 each and I don't think I would use the service often enough to warrant paying for a monthly subscription (about £8 per month). So for the time being, at least, I am content to download the odd narrated book off the BBC iPlayer Radio app (wouldn't be accurate to call them audiobooks given that they're often abridged).

Sometimes I not only ignore opportunities to read more books, I also wonder if I should read fewer books (which surely must amount to sacrilege for a book blogger!). I've read 19 books this year and, to be honest, I'd struggle to remember what they all were without checking my Goodreads list. I don't think this is a reflection of a quality of the books (though some, admittedly, were quite forgettable) but more that, as a human, I can only recall seven thing at any one time. Does seems a tad pointless to read more books if I am only to forget that I've read them afterwards! (Ignoring the whole counter argument that you don't need to remember a book for it have a lasting impression, obviously.)

Ultimately, of course, reading is not a competition and there are no rules about how many books you should read in a month. The amount of books you get through in a month is entirely down to you.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

My Mum's love of reading

Mum and me & a much sought-after book

Mother's Day always smarts a little for me because it reminds me of what I no longer have: a Mum. My Mum died several years ago, so a day that celebrates mothers is naturally somewhat painful for me. But rather than focus on the sadness of her loss, which I can do any day of the year, I've decided there's no reason why I can't celebrate her even though she's not here anymore. Fittingly given that this is a book blog, I want to honour my Mum's love of reading.

I think anyone who knew my Mum even vaguely would know she liked to read. So frequent were her visits to the library, that the librarians knew her by sight if not by name. Admittedly, Malvern  - my hometown - isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis, so people do tend to know each other but, still, Mum must definitively have been on the top 10 must frequent users list (should such a thing exist). In fact, much to her amusement, I once observed she used library cards as other women used credit cards. Having taken as many as books as she was allowed on her own card, she took out yet more books with my Dad's, my sisters' and my cards. In fairness, having moved away to various locations, my sisters and I had no need for our cards and she did use Dad's card to take out books that he might like.

She not only went to the library for her reading fix, she also regularly raided the shelves of the local supermarkets for books; if you have go through the tedium of picking up broad beans each week (my Dad's favourites), you may as well use it as an opportunity to indulge in your favourite pastime. Whenever I went to the supermarket with her, her first question as soon as we were through the doors was "shall we look at the magazines/books?". This question was always rhetorical given, without waiting for me to answer, she immediately headed in the direction of the mag/book aisle. Should I grumble too much about this, she'd shut me up by offering to buy me a mag as well (she did this even when I was in my 20s).

Our house, therefore not surprisingly, had books in pretty much every room; some parents turn their children's bedrooms into gyms once they've flown the next, she turned ours into mini libraries. My Dad (fair enough really) had limited tolerance for having books (and magazines) everywhere, so Mum would occasionally palm off some of her extensive collection to her friends to quieten his mutterings.

Mum not only loved to read, she also enjoyed writing about the books she'd read. Flicking through these observations, it seems she finds a fair few books "OTT" (if you will read romantic sagas, what do you expect?) and wonders if Shopaholic and Baby will be the next book to follow Shopaholic and Sister in Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series - an accurate prediction it turns out. I think she'd have loved Goodreads  - assuming I was able to teach her how to use the site (teaching her how to send an email was a hit and miss affair) - and would have enjoyed reading book blogs. In fact, one of the saddest things about her being no longer around, for me, is that she'll never read this blog or follow my bookish musings on Twitter. Mum and I had many things in common, but our shared loved of reading certainly created a strong bond between us.

One of my most lovely reading memories of Mum is that, shortly before she died, she found a copy of Chronicle of The Royal Family in the local Oxfam. She'd apparently wanted it for years but could never bring herself to fork out the £20 or so quid it would cost to buy it new, so she was absolutely delighted to pick it up secondhand (muggins here was less pleased as I was the one who had to lug the huge tome back to the car). She never got chance to read it, but I am happy that she achieved one of her book ambitions before she died. I own the book now and I'll never part with it. She, of course, would think it was a total hoot that her die-hard republican daughter now treasures a book on the royal family (she'd find it even funnier that I am actually much more of a monarchist these days).

Appropriately enough, there's a now bench in her memory in the grounds of the library that she loved so much. It's in the perfect location - anyone who sits on it can read their library books while looking at all the people coming and going from the library. I can't think of anything my Mum would enjoy more than combining reading with people watching.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Anne's Ghosts - A review

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family SecretAnnie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely fascinating story of how Luxenburg tries to find out what happened to his mother's "secret" sister Annie - only finding out about her existence a few month's before his mother's death. More than that it explores why his mother kept her sister hidden and how a woman, as Annie was, could be committed to a mental asylum and essentially forgotten about.

I think the book also taps into a fear that you have when someone you love dies - did you really know them? Will some secret come out that changes how you view them? How Luxenberg comes to terms with the fact that his beloved mother kept a major secret from him and his siblings (and possibly his father) is another intriguing element of the book.

The only downside of this book is that it's difficult to get hold of in the UK (I had to order it via Amazon)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A reading list for International Women's Day

To mark International Women Day's* , which "celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women", I've decided to highlight five books that I think provide positive messages for women (and men!). Some of these books are intentionally feminist while others are not, but all - I think anyway - have the underlying message that being yourself is a perfectly OK thing to be. 

1. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
This part memoir, part feminist manifesto (no, I don't think it should be "womanifesto") was a revelation when I read it at the tender age of 32. I'd always been a bit ashamed of the fact that I am not really into clothes or make-up  - sort of felt like I'd failed some test of womanhood - but, in this book, Moran says you don't have to be that fussed about make-up just because you're a woman. In other words, women don't have to be a particular way.

2. 84, Charing Cross Road By Helene Hanff
This account of Hanff's correspondence with a bookseller (at 84 Charing Cross Road, funnily enough) for me was so much more than an endearing tale of friendship; it was an insight into how to be OK with yourself. Yes, Hanff  probably did suffer from the odd bout of self doubt (as most humans do!), but she comes across as someone who is comfortable in her own skin. She doesn't fret about the fact she's single or anything else women are "supposed" to get upset about; she just gets peeved because Frank (the bookseller) has sent her the "wrong" version of Samuel Pepys' Diary.

3. Girls will be Girls by Emer O'Toole
An interesting read in which O'Toole argues that concepts such as "femininity" and "masculinity" are learned traits rather than anything to do with biological sex. Therefore, according to her, don't beat yourself up if you're not a very "feminine" female because it's all a performance anyway.

4. South Riding by Winifred Holtby
To be honest, it's so long ago that I read this book (at least seven years) that I don't remember much about it. But, what I do remember is how much I liked the protagonist Sarah Burton. It is always refreshing to have such an independently-minded female in a novel, but particularly so given that this book was first published in 1936.

5. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
What I loved most about Strayed's memoir of her hike across the Pacific Crest Trail is that she doesn't "find herself" or any other tedious cliche during her time on trail - she just gains a sense of accomplishment and tries to come to terms with the mistakes she's made in her life. Wild, though, is making this list because walking 1,100 mile solo with flip all experience of hiking is a pretty kick ass thing to do.

* = If you're wondering when the equivalent International Men's Day is, please see the other 364 days of the year