Lesson 15: reading the right books

Maybe it’s an age thing, but lots of people I’ve spoken to recently seem to be going through a difficult time. Heartache, illness and hard decisions are a fundamental part of life, making them key themes in almost every book that was ever written. If you’re looking for answers and inspiration, there is honestly no better place to turn. Reading is good for the soul. It’s as simple as that.

It’s a bit of a gamble when you wander into Waterstones or start browsing Amazon, so here are my all-time favourite reads and what they stand for. They are all clever, thought-provoking and insightful in their own way. They do what I hoped my little blog would do – remind people that life will always throw hurdles at us, but without them we wouldn’t learn anything at all.

 1. The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

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An old lady reflecting back on her life, Iris Chase shares not only the deepest parts of her own history, but also those of her sister, Laura. The maps, puzzles and subtle complexities within this novel address the extent to which we all manipulate the facts, giving away only what we desire, and seeing only what we wish to see in return.

 2. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Set in 1960s Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun dramatises the effects of the war through five different people: twin sisters, a professor, an Englishman and a boy. They are all connected, but the book focuses on the disconnection caused by the horror and paranoia of the war, revealing everything to have two sides, from personalities to whole countries.

 3. Burial Rights, by Hannah Kent

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Convicted murderess Agnes Magnúsdóttir is sent to live with a peasant family during the build up to her execution. Set in 1829, Northern Iceland, Burial Rites is as much a semi-poetic memoir to true events as it is a historical novel. The story of Agnes is built around true events and serves to give her the voice she never had. Not for the faint hearted, this book took me a little while to get over. And yes, I did cry.

 4. Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

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If you’re looking for a fast-paced page turner, Apple Tree Yard isn’t your average thriller. A story of love and deceit, secrets and sexism: respectable geneticist Yvonne Carmichael finds herself tangled in a court case that comes to define her. Gripping, surprising and very clever, Louise Doughty carefully examines the frustrations of the modern career woman before illustrating the consequences of putting desire first.

 5. Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

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Easily one of the best books I’ve ever read, and the ultimate story to keep your brain ticking while you’re travelling. The protagonist is a heroin addict, sent to prison in New Zealand. He escapes over the wall and flees to India where he lives and works as a doctor in a slum, falls in love, trades in the black market, is eventually recaptured before fighting in the war in Afghanistan. The story is based on the real life of the author, who wrote the novel while in prison where it was destroyed time and time again. This book will have you rethinking every opinion you’ve ever had. It’s inspiring, incredibly well written and heart-wrenchingly sad.

 6. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

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This book is pretty unnerving but an important read. It takes convention and turns it on its head with some pretty disturbing images and dream-like anecdotes. The story is written largely from the point of view of a boy called Oska, who’s Dad has just died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. This book explores the impact of trauma and the extremities of both human emotion and humanity itself. We are guided through Oska’s journey to normality and meet some pretty insightful characters along the way.

 7. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

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I’ve recommended this book to a few people. Some people have loved it and some people have hated it, but I wrote my dissertation on it so I’m kind of emotionally attached. Snowman wakes up in a tree, he is surrounded by a new breed of humans and the world as we know it has been lost to deadly disease. Atwood’s dystopian vision combines the darkest kind of humour with a direct criticism of modern society and the way the world is going. I love her for her wit and the way she explores the tension between science, art and everything in between. The book is part of a trilogy – The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam complete the story, which just gets stranger and stranger.

 8. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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It’s important that this book is so disturbing, because what was going on in rural Georgia in the 1930s was, quite frankly, disturbing. Celie is an African-American teenage girl who details everything about her difficult life in letters to God – you, the reader. You feel uncomfortably powerful reading this book. Gender roles are subverted over and over. If you read this book at school, read it again. It will seem different to you now.

 9. Written on the body, by Jeanette Winterson

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First things first, this book is written by a woman about a woman. It beautifully and intricately illustrates that love knows no boundaries or limitations, and also reminds us of our own prejudices. If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume the protagonist was a man. There are no overt homosexual references, just the implications of a love that is true and raw. I love Winterson’s voice in this book; she is strong, determined, arrogant and witty and yet helplessly in love. A really indulgent read that you can’t help but relate to.

 10. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

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“Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.” Proving that beauty and hope lurk in the darkest corners, this wonderful book retains so much beauty and grace for a text that directly confronts the rise of the Taliban. A Thousand Splendid Suns reminds us that some people are forced to endure more than others – the heroes in this book are rewarded with having an even greater capacity for love.

11. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

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There is a beautiful kind of healing quality that comes from reading Beloved. You hurt and bleed with the characters and live not only their world, but the world of every black family that ever suffered racial segregation. When I can’t be bothered with work, I imagine the determination and strength of pregnant Sethe when her back is split open by a whip and she carries on walking. The surreal and supernatural nature of the story aligns slavery with fiction, forcing the reader to face up to its true horror and the ghosts of our past.

12. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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If the Great Gatsby thrilled you, then you’ll fall hard for Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald continues to expose 1920’s America, only this time he places his characters in the French Riviera. The story centres around Dick and Nicole and the microcosmic world they’ve created. Madness, deceit, identity and lust collide over and over in a haze of glamorous drunken scenarios – each character as doomed as the next. The book has inspired Liza Klaussman’s new read, Villa America – the next one on my list!

 13. Room, by Emma Donoghue

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If you haven’t come across this book before and don’t know what the twist is, go and read it immediately. Room is written from the point of view of five-year-old Jack, who has never been outside. This moving, chilling story reminds us what the human race is capable of, both in the best and worst-possible ways. Donoghue captures Jack’s voice brilliantly, too.

14. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

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Please watch the original production of this after you’ve read the play; it has Marlon Brando in it and that’s all you need to know. A Streetcar Named Desire dramatises the extent which to we are obsessed with the appearance of things. The play focuses on lust, insanity, power struggles and class, and every character is beautifully flawed.

15. How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran

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This book is completely different to anything you’ve read before. Moran goes one step further than anyone has ever dared. HTBAG is so rude and ridiculous that you can’t help but love it. It’s so real it’s unreal, and so silly it’s clever. Feminism, the class system, identity and society defined, quite rightly, by a painfully honest teenage girl from Wolverhampton.

 

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or just any books in general. Comments always welcome below.

 

 

 

Lesson 14: looking forward

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About six weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of mobile phones in relation to properly communicating with the people you care about – the lesson being one about balance. We have become so heavily dependent on mobile phones that they trick us into thinking we’ve spent quality time with people, when in reality they prevent us from acknowledging the people right in front of us. Anyway, ironically, my phone was STOLEN the day after I posted this. One minute it was in my bag, then *poof* it was gone. And, for once in my life, I wasn’t even drunk when it happened.

We’ve probably all experienced that feeling by now – suddenly being cut off from the world, unfairly, without warning. Panic sets in, and then the sheer inconvenience of it becomes a reality. It’s horrible to think that being separated from a piece of technology can make us feel so sub-human.

No matter how many times you do it, losing a phone takes you on a little journey of self-discovery. At first you are beside yourself with grief and within a day or so you feel liberated. I went phoneless for a week and I came out the other side feeling even more convinced that we should all take a tiny break from our phones every now and again. It really, really doesn’t hurt. In the time it has taken for my insurance to kick in, I’ve been borrowing my sister’s boyfriend’s old phone. At first it felt clunky and alien, and now I love it like it was one of my own. We are very adjustable creatures when we have to be.

After countless phone calls and emails, I have finally received a lovely cheque for £479 from my insurance company. A few weeks ago, when my phone first got nicked, I would have given all my belongings for a replacement, let alone this money. Now I find myself wondering whether I ever needed an iPhone 5S in the first place. So, not only have I gained a greater perspective from this incident, I’ve potentially earned myself a couple of quid. It goes back to the same mantra I’ve mentioned before – who knows what’s good or bad?

Apply this little lesson to any hurdles life throws at you and you’ll be surprised what a difference it can make. Time and hindsight change everything, and bad luck gives us the opportunity to learn how to overcome something new. If you feel like the world isn’t on your side right now, give things a chance to unfurl and always look for the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long and twisted it may seem.

I’m not saying that everything happens for a reason, merely, that we can only learn to trust the world around us when we give it time to prove us wrong. We have no choice but to believe in the order of things; there is simply no other option.

Never be afraid to look back at what you’ve learned from something, and always believe that positive things are right around the corner. Positivity spreads positivity – the perfect excuse to remain in a constant, blissful state of hope.

Lesson 4: coping with change

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I hate change. Always have, always will. I am also very easily bored, which makes me a walking contradiction of the worst kind. I always picture how things are supposed to go in my head, whether it’s a night out, a holiday, a relationship, or meeting someone for the first time. When things don’t go to plan, and are completely different to how I imagined they would be, I find it very unnerving. So you can imagine how I would feel if something constant in my life was turned completely upside down, changing beyond the point of recognition.

In parallel to this, I am always desperate to try new things, to improve, to expand my horizons, to challenge my brain and test my capacity to learn. You’d think I would get used to things not going to plan, but, in all honesty, I don’t. It comes from being a perfectionist. Is there anything wrong with wanting things to be as they should be, all the time? No, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like that, but there would be something wrong with the world if we actually lived perfect lives. Here’s why…

Simply, if nothing ever went wrong, we would live in a state of indifference. There would be no anticipation, no excitement, no sense of unknowing. Imagine we all had complete control of our lives. We wouldn’t be living at all. There would be no adrenaline, no butterflies, no surprises, no second chances, no need to try at all. Our lives would be lived for us. We would never learn, never grow, never feel the need to understand. Things change because we have to change. If we didn’t change, we’d have the same outlook on life we had at 14. And I’m pretty bloody glad I don’t think like my 14-year-old self. Teenagers are (in general) self-centred, hyper-emotional narcissists who can’t absorb much of the world because their heads are too fucked. It doesn’t last, but imagine if it did. If we didn’t change and grow because life forced us to, we’d all be thinking that the world owed us. It doesn’t.

Without change, we wouldn’t be able to sympathise with other people’s situations. If I lived one type of life, all my life, I would never fully be able to understand what other people go through. I’m glad I know how it feels to be poor, to grieve, to feel insecure, because without those feelings, I would never ever be able to fully appreciate wealth, love and inner peace. Change teaches us about ourselves. And do you know what, if something horrendous happens to you, and you want to be ok, you will be. The only problem comes when you don’t want to grow as a person, or rise above the uncontrollable things that have happened to you. Bad things happen to pretty much everyone. And if they don’t, then these are the only people on Earth who will never fully appreciate the good things. If you feel like you can’t cope with the changes in your life, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’ve learnt, what’s next and how your experience can benefit other people in some way. We are all stronger than we think, but only change will show you just how strong you are. Who knows whether change is good or bad? Time, and time only.

Joe told me about this parable a few years ago, and it’s a great way to put your mind back on the right track when you’ve suffered a bit of a blow in life:

“A poor farmer in ancient China works on a small plot of land with his teenage son. At this time, horses were considered a sign of wealth; the richest person in the province owned no more than a few of them. One day, a wild horse jumped the poor farmer’s fence and began grazing on his land. According to local law, this meant that the horse now rightfully belonged to him and his family. The son could hardly contain his joy, but the father put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the horse made its escape back to the mountains and the boy was heartbroken. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” his father said again.  On the third day, the horse returned with a dozen wild horses following.  “We’re rich!” the son cried, to which the father again replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” On the fourth day, the boy climbed on one of the wild horses and was thrown off, breaking his leg. His father ran to get the doctor; soon both of them were attending to the boy, who was upset and in a great deal of pain. The old farmer looked deeply into his son’s eyes, and said, “My son, who knows what’s good or bad?” And on the fifth day the province went to war.  Army recruiters came through the town and took all the eligible young men to fight in the war – all except for the young man with the broken leg.”

Just remember, a hurdle is only as big or small as the person who faces it sees it. Be open to change and what it teaches you; and you can overcome anything.