7 ways that reading improves your mental health

World-Mental-Health-Day

On World Mental Health Day, I would like to flag up the obvious – reading is good for you. If you need a reason, here are seven:

  1. Reading reduces stress – it can slow your heart rate and help you relax.
  2. It can help you sleep – reading before bed induces sleep much more effectively than any other activity. Switching off your mobile phone and picking up a book will promote good sleep hygiene.
  3. Reading stops you ruminating – many of us build up our anxiety levels by going over and over stressful experiences. Reading a book will take you out of that negative thought cycle.
  4. Books do not mess with your melatonin – unlike a phone. Young people in particular benefit from putting the phone, with its melatonin-suppressing blue light, away and picking up a book.
  5. Reading explands your mind – much more than YouTube or EastEnders ever will.
  6. Reading improves focus and concentration – and that can help you manage the demands of life more effectively, especially if you find it difficult to complete tasks, with all the consequent pressures that brings.
  7. You won’t be comparing yourself with perfection – most characters in good books are flawed…like the rest of us. Normal. You will not meet people living seemingly amazing lives, with perfect bodies and hundreds of friends, who are going to make you feel rubbish. You will meet characters like you. And others not like you. Life’s rich tapestry in fact.

So, celebrate World Mental Health Day by doing something for yourself and sitting down with a book.

Man Booker Prize 2018 – shortlist announced next week

Next Thursday (20 September) sees the announcement of the shortlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, the foremost literary prize in the UK and one of the most important on the international calendar too. The longlist was announced back in July and I have to confess that I was not familiar with any of the novels listed. The shortlist comprises the six best novels, as agreed by the judging panel from their longlist of thirteen books.

MB judges 2018
The Man Booker 2018 judging panel (L-R) – Val McDermid, Leanne Shapton, Kwame Anthony Appiah (Chair), Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose

This is an important year for the Booker as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. There was a special award made earlier this year for the Golden Man Booker, the best work of fiction from all the winners. The judging panel was a stellar cast and each chose their favourite work, as follows:

Robert McCrum – In a Free State (1971) by VS Naipaul

Lemn Sissay – Moon Tiger (1987) by Penelope Lively

Kamila Shamsie – The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

Simon Mayo – Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel

Holly McNish – Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders

The English patientThis shortlist was announced in May and the list was then put up for a public vote. My personal favourite of these was Wolf Hall. In 1983, the celebrate the 25th anniversary of the prize a “Booker of Bookers” contest was set up and three judges chose Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I probably agree with. It was good to see the vote open to the public this time rather than a small group of the literati, and the winner was The English Patient. I still remember reading that book for the first time the year it came out and then the wonderful movie with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, which itself went on to win several Oscars including Best Picture.

The panel of judges this year includes Val McDermid, so you can be sure that one of their criteria will be whether or not it’s a great story, something, I think it’s fair to say, literary fiction does not always consider of the highest importance. That was my feeling about last year’s winner, sadly.

For the last couple of years I have set myself the task of reading the shortlist before the winner is announced in October. Last year I managed five out of the six, and I STILL have not completed Paul Auster’s 4321 – I want to, honestly, but it’s SO LONG! I will do the same again this year, although I note that we seem to have one less week than usual between the shortlist and the announcement of the winner on 16 October – yikes, less than four weeks! Let’s hope there are no more monster tomes!

So look out for the shortlist announcement this Thursday; it will probably make many of the news bulletins.

Do you plan to read the Man Booker shortlist?

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Hot new reads for the Summer

As Britain swelters under a seemingly relentless heatwave, thoughts are turning to holidays, even though perhaps that fortnight in the sun could just as easily be had at home at the moment! So, if you are looking for ideas for your holiday reading list here are some new titles that you might look out for. It’s quite an international list so if you are outside the UK you should be able to find most of these too.

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse – I haven’t read any Kate Mosse but having just finished The Birth of Venus I am in the mood for historical fiction! Set in 16th century Carcassonne, France, it concerns an elderly bookseller and his family and the impact of the religious wars on their lives.

The Baghdad Clock by Shahad Al Rawi – already a best-seller in Dubai and the UAE, this novel, set in the time of the first Gulf war in 1991, looks at how the conflict affected the ordinary people of the city of Baghdad. When our television screens are full of images of refugees caught up in war, of bodies and of bombed-out buildings, I hope this novel will give us an insight into the reality of the lives of people just like us.

Lala  by Jacek Dehnel – an elderly woman recounts her extraordinary life to her grandson. Born in Poland in 1875 she lived through two world wars, life under communism and then liberation. This book has already won prizes in the author’s native Poland.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton – set in New York city this novel concerns the increasingly oppressive friendship between two young women, aspiring writer Louise and wealthy social butterfly Lavinia. The two women meet when Louise goes to tutor Lavinia’s younger sister. Their friendship becomes necessary to both of them, but for different reasons, and is characterised by deceit, jealousy and an unhealthy dependency.

The Hour of Separation by Katharine McMahon – McMahon’s The Rose of Sebastapol is one of my all-time favourite books. I haven’t read anything she has written since, but I really like the sound of this novel. Another novel about friendship between two women, Christa and Estelle, this time set in 1939, who have in common Fleur – Fleur was the Belgian Resistance fighter who saved Christa’s father in the Great War. She was also Estelle’s mother. The two women meet just before the outbreak of World War Two.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – I loved Moshfegh’s thriller Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Her new novel, published in the UK this week, promises to be equally dark and thrilling. Set in 2000, around the corner in time from 9/11, our narrator is a wealthy young New Yorker. The deaths of her parents while she was studying at Columbia university, a sense of the pointlessness of her own life, and dysfunctional relationships with her so-called best friend and her Wall Street boyfriend, lead her to take a ‘narcotic hibernation’. It is not without consequence.

The Temptation of Gracie by Santa Montefiore – the cover tells you this is going to be perfect for poolside! Gracie Burton blows all her savings on a week-long cookery course in Tuscany, much to the consternation of her daughter Carina and granddaughter Anastasia. The trip turns out to be about more than just mid-life crisis, however, and aspects of Gracie’s past that her family were not aware of, are revealed. Tantalising!

Some of these books are only just out and so may only be available in Hardback, or e-reader – perfect for holiday packing!

What are your recommendations for the summer?

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The NHS at 70: 9 books with medical themes

There is a great deal of debate and attention on the UK National Health Service at the moment as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you live in Britain, you can’t move for television, radio and newspaper commentaries at the moment. But the talk is not just about celebration, but about what we want and expect public services to provide in the way of healthcare, and, just as important, how the immense costs of it all should be met. The challenges are mind-boggling: we have an ageing population, advanced medicines come at a high price, the long-term nature of public health investment, not to mention dealing with developed world problems such as obesity, addiction and mental illness. The issues are massive.

The NHS was described by politician Nigel Lawson as “the closest thing the English people have to a religion” and it is indeed dear to the hearts of many. Observe the profile it enjoyed at the opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics and the influence the promise of extra cash for the NHS most likely had on the Brexit debate.

I have no intention of starting a political debate here, but if health is on your mind, you might want to dip into some books with a medical theme. Here are some of my suggestions (not all of which I have read, I should add):

  1. Still Alice by Lisa Genova – a moving account of a 50 year-old woman’s development of early onset Alzheimers. Made into a film starring Julianne Moore.
  2. Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon – a YA book about a young woman suffering from a rare condition which means her immune system is dangerously impaired.
  3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby – a harrowing true story where the author developed locked-in syndrome after a car accident. He was initially thought to be in a coma, but was in fact fully conscious. He was eventually able to communicate through blinking, and wrote this book using only this tool. Incredible and reminds you of the fragility of life.
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – another YA novel, both my daughters love this book, about teenage terminal illness. Also made into a tear-jerker of a film.
  5. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – award-winning non-fiction writing from a junior doctor telling it like it is on the NHS front-line.
  6. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth – love the TV show, currently reading the follow-up Farewell to the East End, Worth was a young midwife in East London in the 1950s so for a taste of the early days of the NHS look no further.
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a young Scottish woman’s mental illness, compounded by loneliness, detachment and the harshness of modern life.
  8. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon – challenging life events, seen through the eyes of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. A must-read.
  9. Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill – I have recommended this book so many times. It’s an intense novel about eating disorders, mental health and sexuality.

 

If you have suggestions for any other books with a medical theme that you have enjoyed, I would love to hear them.

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The Hay Festival 2018

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Before the crowds and the sun arrived. Hours later children were climbing all over the famous letters.

This weekend I fulfilled a long-held ambition and visited the Hay Festival. First established in 1988, this foremost of literary events is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has spawned a number of copycat events worldwide – including in Mexico, Spain, Denmark and India. Bill Clinton famously referred to Hay as ‘the Woodstock of the Mind’. I’ve been meaning to go for years, but it never seems to have been the right time. This year, circumstances were in my favour and I realised, only last week, that I could actually go! Hay-on-Wye, is in Powys mid-Wales, and although it was a long trip I decided to drive there and back in a day (mainly on country roads through beautiful Welsh and English villages incidentally). It was the most amazing and stimulating day and I’m already blocking out my diary for next year – I’m staying in one of those yurts!

Ruta

My day started with a talk from the wonderful American-Lithuanian YA author Ruta Sepetys, who was discussing her latest book Salt to the Sea. It’s a book about the sinking of the ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945, by a Soviet torpedo, with the loss of 9,000 lives, mostly Lithuanian refugees, who were trying to escape the advancing Red Army. I can’t wait to read it, so look out for my review.

2018-05-27-13-53-56.jpgI then saw Rupert Everett (with whom I fell in love years ago after his appearances in films Another Country and Dance with a Stranger in the mid-1980s) in conversation with Alan Yentob. Everett has just completed his film about Oscar Wilde, a passion project which it has taken over ten years to bring to fruition. There was a BBC4 Imagine documentary about it a couple of weeks ago.

 

In the afternoon, I watched Cambridge academic Terri Apter give a talk about her new book Passing Judgement: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life which made me reflect on how I interact with my children, my partner and others around me, and how my responses to praise/blame may have been shaped by my early life experience. Fascinating stuff.

ElifShafakFinally, my last event of the day was hearing Turkish author Elif Shafak speaking about her new book The Forty Rules of Love. I reviewed her novel The Bastard of Istanbul on this blog a few months ago. I wasn’t made about it, but hearing her speak, I must say, was inspiring. She is a remarkable woman of deep learning, great sensitivity, multilingual and came across as a very nice person to boot. Stunning talk.

I lingered for some time, even when I knew I ought to be heading home to make sure my teenager had got out of bed. Though there was heavy rain and thunderstorms in the morning, the sun blazed all afternoon. It is a magnificent setting, the town, which I did not get to explore, is delightful, and there are so many events to choose from, many of them free. The Haydays festival within a festival, aimed at children and young people, offers a packed schedule for the little ones. There is a marvellous on-site bookshop, Oxfam bookshop, food outlets and a few retail stalls. But this is primarily a festival to make you think, not make you spend, and I heartily recommend it.

Next year’s festival takes place 23 May – 2 June. You can also subscribe to the Hay Player for £10 which enables you to watch or listen to the archive of thousands of events from Hay over the years.

Have you been to the Hay Festival? What were your impressions?

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Why book ratings are pointless!

If  you have read any of the book reviews I publish on this blog, you will note that I do not give star ratings, marks out of ten or anything like that. I will recommend or not (usually the former – even if I have not enjoyed something, I will try to think about who might like it) and, particularly in the case of the children’s books I review, I will say what age group I think it’s appropriate for and any issues parents might like to be aware of. For example, books marketed for, say, 11-13 year olds might contain references to violence or death, which will be okay for some kids, but not if they’ve just lost a pet, grandparent or are on the sensitive side. Star ratings, on the other hand, are a blunt instrument.

I am a keen member of the Goodreads website and I write short reviews of most things I read (haven’t caught up on the back catalogue I listed when I joined, though!). I hate giving the star rating and find even my own ratings are inconsistent from one book to the next, so how on earth can a reader compare a 4-star rating one person has given to a 2-star rating from someone else? If you read the review, I guess that gives you the reader’s justification for their rating, but the trouble with star ratings is that you are immediately drawn to the high level score rather than the longer-form explanation.

(The erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey gets the same score of 3.66 on Goodreads as Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey! But are they comparable?)

What justifies a star-rating anyway? Is it how much you’ve enjoyed something? Or how GOOD you think it is? They are not necessarily the same thing. For example, I recently reviewed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on this blog and on Goodreads, after I set it as the book for March on my Facebook Reading Challenge. I think it is fair to say that most people involved in the Challenge did not love the book, and yet it is one of the great classics of world literature. I loved it (but then I love the classics generally), but I cannot say, hand on heart, that I sat wrapt for every moment I was reading it. This 19th century novel was definitely hard work in places for a 21st century reader. Yet, there are plenty of books I’ve read recently which I could not put down. One that comes to mind is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, but you would probably not say it was a classic; it’s the sort of book you’ll find in the hospital League of Friends bookstall! The Goodreads rating for Madame Bovary is 3.65 and for The Secret Life of Bees is 4.02, but will the latter still be in print in 150 years time?

I’m not really sure what this very unscientific comparison tells us, except that readers’ tastes change all the time. I gave Madame Bovary 5 stars because I recognise it as a great book, and acknowledge its longevity and its place in world literature, but others who hated it will have given it 1 star. But my enjoyment of it was a different kind of pleasure to reading The Secret Life of Bees.

I recognise the inconsistencies in my own ratings too – I am more likely to give a book a higher rating if it has met my expectations or if it was appropriate for the time I was reading it. This would explain the 1 star I gave to George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in The Bardo and the 4 stars I gave to Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox – the latter struck a political chord and moved me, but it’s not literary. And when I’m reviewing a children’s book, I try to rate it from the point of view of how much I think the target audience might enjoy it. But children’s tastes can be difficult to predict!

So, the answer really is to ignore the star rating and read the review – would you agree?

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Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 – shortlist announced

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, formerly the Bailey’s Prize, was announced last week. This prize is one of the foremost competitions for women writers and it’s one of those where every year the shortlist list looks like a box of precious jewels (unlike the Man Booker which always manages a curve ball or two, in my view!) There is NOTHING on the list this year that I don’t want to read at some point! So many books, so little time, especially as I’m giving over more of my reading time to children’s literature these days.

If you’re looking for something to read yourself, I have heard great things about all of these books, and I suspect you won’t go wrong if you pick any one of them.

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The novels on the shortlist are:

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – a woman recounts her journey to motherhood and reflects on the relationships she had with her mother and grandmother.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Isma is studying in America, having spent years raising her two younger siblings following their mother’s death. The family becomes embroiled in London with Eamonn, the son of a high-profile Muslim politician. It’s a novel about destiny, choices and love.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – a story about race, drug abuse, broken masculinity and poverty in the US seen through the eyes of thirteen year old Jojo and his mother Leonie.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – a story about language and culture set in Harvard, Massachusetts, where Selin, a Turkish-American, is studying and meets others like her, of mixed race and mixed cultures.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar – a story about the power and mythology of mermaids. set in 18th century London, where the merchant Jonah Hancock learns one of his captains has sold a ship in exchange for a mermaid. News spreads and Hancock finds himself the centre of London society.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – a novel about domestic abuse and control, and the crushing of a young woman’s hopes and ambitions by a domineering husband.

I haven’t read any of these and doubt I will manage to get through this list by the time the winner is announced on 6 June. The first and the last on this list appeal to me most, although Sing, Unburied, Sing also looks like a must-read.

I’d love to hear from you if you have read any of these – what do you recommend?

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