Reading: The Power of the Strange Denim Monster-Children

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

A crooked, nostalgic tale centering around a young man working at a video rental store, where disturbing video clips begin showing up on some of the tapes without explanation. Stylistically, Universal Harvester has a lot in common with the author’s debut Wolf in White Van – non-linear, cryptic, unsettling, and interested in people with unusual obsessions – but because of its horror story setup I can see many people (including me, to some extent) going in expecting something it has no real interest in delivering. Darnielle seems quite aware of these expectations, acknowledging other possible “versions” of the story even as he subverts them. And that’s fine; I would certainly never want to say to an author “forget this strange, original thing you clearly want to do; you should write something more generic and immediately accessible just for me”. Granted, it didn’t connect with me in any profound way, but you might appreciate this book if you’re in the mood for a bit of quiet meditation on the transitive nature of people, places and things.

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Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The elevator pitch for Children of Time would make it sound pretty silly and unbelievable. A civilisation of super-evolved spiders slowly rises on a terraformed planet while their godlike accidental creator watches perplexedly and the last remaining band of humans in the universe bumbles around in space wondering what the hell to do about them? Okay there buddy, sounds like the movie would make for a decent MST3K episode at least. It is therefore doubly impressive that this book is so brilliant, profound and moving – a beautiful, utterly engaging depiction of the era-encompassing journey from the dawn of a civilisation to its apex and of what it means for a species to truly comprehend its own place in the universe. Particularly interesting are the implications about which aspects of our modern world are the inevitable products of the rise of civilisation, and which are flukes that wouldn’t necessarily arise elsewhere: the way in which the spiders read is a particularly clever example of how they diverge from us, believing their way to be the only natural, logical one. For every one of these carefully sculpted details and for the breathtaking scope of the story as a whole, Children of Time is a masterpiece of rigorous world-building and easily one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Any story that involves a shy, bookish individual setting off on a journey into fantastical unknown lands is going to tickle a certain childish part of my brain from the get-go, and more so even than most, Strange the Dreamer continues to surprise and delight for most of its length. It feels like a fairytale spun out into a novel, pitch black in places but rich in wonder, serendipity, magic and romance – a kind of metaphysical romance so absurdly romantic that you can only look on with envy, cursing our own world’s relatively constrictive set of physical laws. My only real criticism is that the ending, in a manner that has become a little too familiar in modern fantasy, opts for a big straight-down-the-middle cliffhanger rather than attempting the messy business of wrapping up any of its plots. Apparently the story was originally conceived as a single volume, and the lack of closure at the end makes me wish it had remained that way – I’d have been perfectly happy with a twice-as-thick doorstop edition of this book with a proper ending.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash opens strong – so strong that I was sure I was about to fall utterly in love with it. How can you not love a book following a samurai-sword-wielding-pizza-delivery-guy-slash-super-l33t-hacker and his sassy teenage sidekick, both employed by the mafia, as they zoom around the neon-tinted corporatised dystopian fragments of fallen future America? Even if knowingly pulpy cyberpunk nonsense wasn’t my thing, which apparently it is, I always respect authors who go for it to the degree that the opening third or so of this book goes for it. But then… I wouldn’t say it goes off the rails later on, but it certainly begins to feel more like a standard thriller, with guns, helicopter chases and more messing about in boats than The Wind in the Willows. Given the times in which we live, there are also some uncomfortable passages regarding a flotilla of refugees, though perhaps this reflects the exaggerated amoral vision of America that the book conjures; in places it feels like a twisted satirical collage almost in the vein of American Psycho. In the end, reluctantly, I settled for merely liking Snow Crash. It’ll do. I’ve been starring too many books lately anyway.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

I left it way longer than I meant to before getting round to this final volume of the Chaos Walking trilogy, mostly because I’m a bad person but a little bit because The Ask and the Answer felt more like standard YA fare than the heart-pounding imaginative genius of The Knife of Never Letting Go. For me, Monsters of Men falls somewhere between the two previous books; the story is well constructed and the writing quite beautiful in places, but it still lacks some of the shine and variety of book one, and there are some fairly predictable YA beats along the way. Like the third Hobbit film, it seems to take place almost entirely on and around a flat grey battlefield – at least it did in my head, and there wasn’t much in the way of colourful description to dispell this impression. Still, I’m only focusing on the negatives out of love for Knife – this is by no means a bad conclusion to the trilogy, and looking back there is a power to all three books together than even the first does not possess on its own.

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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

Maybe I loved this book only because I’m weird in a few of the same ways David Sedaris is weird – several of his stories, for example, resolve with the familiar realisation that’s he’s not quite as good a person as he’d like to think – but given his popularity I have to assume a lot of other people also relate to him, which is comforting. Not that his specific circumstances match mine: I was never kicked out of my parents’ house for being gay, I never fantasised about buying the Anne Frank house, my brother is generally more functional than Sedaris’s siblings, and I certainly haven’t landed in the sheer number of absurd and hilarious situations related here. Or maybe I have? It’s hard to tell if Sedaris has particularly great stories to tell or is just great at telling them. Either way, this collection is moving, insightful and incredibly funny, especially in audiobook form, where it is complemented by the author’s own mournfully deadpan delivery. Within a few stories I’d already added him to my “must read everything by this author” shortlist.

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

The first in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger takes a while to show its hand. Much of the book is a fairly standard, if wild west-tinged fantasy, a lonely trek across a wasteland, not entirely dissimilar to the postapocalyptic minimalism of The Road. And I won’t give away too much (not that I feel like I know everything, not by a long shot) but if after the first few chapters your concern is that the whole series is going to be this and nothing more… I think I can say with some confidence, it’s not. That’s not to say I’m totally sold on the series yet; this does very much feel like an introductory volume, in which before our eyes the impish author weaves a rug, tells us to stand on it, then immediately pulls it out from under us to reveal what the series really is. I’d forgive people for feeling annoyed. But after – well, after that bit where it gets all crazy, you know the bit if you’ve read it – I can’t help it: I want to know more, even if I’m not especially in love with the characters or the style of writing. Maybe I’ll just read book two and see if that answers anything… (And that’s how he gets you.)

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power is really something. By that I mean, in spite of its flaws it is big and important and powerful – not only fierily relevant to right now, but possessing an assuredness that gives it the air of a classic in waiting. If you don’t know what it’s about: imagine a superhero story where all the women in the world get superpowers at once, and there’s your starting point. From there on, the book primarily focuses on four very distinct characters, and does a pretty slippery job of slithering out of any genre you try to cram it into. Dystopian… apocalyptic… sci-fi… action… political… satire? This uncertainty may be the biggest turnoff to some readers, but to me it is a strength. The Power is startling, disturbing, complicated, thought-provoking, and even catches you off guard with a laugh now and then. At times you might feel it’s taking shortcuts to get where it wants to go; you might wish it would zoom out to give you a broader overall picture of what’s going on in the world, or zoom in to explain some of the characters’ nuttier decisions. But even if you disagree with its message entirely (which I don’t) – well, you might rant about the things it gets wrong about people or politics or gender or biology, but you’re still talking about it; you’re raising your voice, and look, you’re digging your nails into the arm of your chair. Don’t tell me this isn’t art.

Note: I also reread American Gods for my book club and enjoyed it much, much more than when I first read it a few years back. Given that the same thing happened with Neverwhere, maybe it’s time to admit that I’m not quite clever enough to properly appreciate Neil Gaiman’s work on my first go-round. Looking back on my original review of Gods, I feel my indifference was mostly born out of frustration at not entirely following some of the mythological stuff, as well as having my expectations set wrong. I’ll keep my original impressions up, but I’ll add a star and a little note to reflect my new feelings on it, over on the Books I’ve Read page. Where, incidentally, you can also find over a hundred of my other rambly (and quite possibly entirely wrong) book paragraphs!

SSRI-ously: my first 100 days on fluoxetine

Extreme honesty alert! If you don’t like reading unfiltered accounts of mental health stuff, don’t read this blog post. It even contains the words “my sex drive”, in that order. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

I know, I know. Mental Health Awareness Week was last week. I really meant to write this post then, but I was distracted by other things. Alternatively, by posting it today I’m making a statement on how we need to be aware of mental health all year round, not just for one week. Take your pick.

I mentioned in my last serious post that I’d just been prescribed fluoxetine. I’ve now been taking it for over 100 days. Fluoxetine is probably more widely known by the trade name Prozac, and it’s an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), a kind of antidepressant which, in the lamest of layman’s terms, makes the happy chemicals in your brain stick around longer than they normally would. At least in the UK you can’t buy it over the counter; it has to be prescribed by a doctor. That’s the main reason I feel okay about writing what I’m about to write. Let’s be clear: I am about the furthest thing from a doctor that the human race has yet produced. Everything I say from here on is based purely on my own personal experience, and should be overridden by anything you hear in a consultation with an actual medical professional.

That said: based on the 100 or so days I’ve been taking it, fluoxetine is a goddamn miracle.

No, it hasn’t fixed all my problems. I never expected it to. To be honest, part of me never thought it would do anything at all. But it has. My life situation hasn’t changed much (yet; I’m working on it), but I feel much more stable and happy than I did at the beginning of the year. Back then, I was getting to a point where I would often avoid social gatherings even with my closest friends because I felt like I was being antisocial and because I couldn’t stop myself falling into a pit of hopelessness immediately afterwards. Today I still have plenty of insecurities, but they don’t overwhelm me; little things don’t snowball into massive avalanches in my head, petty jealousies are easier to let go of, and I think I’m a nicer person to be around.

To clear a few things up, I’m going to respond to some of my own doubts which I had before I started taking antidepressants.

Maybe I’m not actually depressed? Maybe this is how everyone feels, and they’re all just better at dealing with it than I am? I mean, how could anyone NOT feel this way when there are so many things in life to worry about?

There is no objective way to measure feelings, of course, but any doubts I may have had that I was actually depressed have been completely dispelled by the change in my moods since taking fluoxetine. I don’t exactly wake up singing every morning, but I also haven’t had any more of those why-should-I-keep-breathing days recently. I look back on those days now and I recognise them for what they were: signs that I was badly in need of help. I can’t say for certain that I’ll never have one of those days again, but I haven’t yet. Everything has been lifted up a bit. Bad days are now okay days, okay days are now good days.

I’m also finding it easier to relate to other people, in a way that suggests what I’m feeling now is closer to what they feel most of the time. Suddenly I can understand other people’s seemingly superhuman ability to brush off the sorts of little things that used to burrow into my brain and eat me from the inside out. I can understand why other people don’t feel the urge to message their friends after every single social gathering to apologise and ask if they’re still friends. It’s not that they secretly feel just as sad and insecure as I did and are better at keeping it bottled up. It’s that mentally healthy people just DON’T go spiralling into despair at the tiniest provocation, the way I used to. If they did, the world would not function even to the dubious extent that it’s functioning at the moment. So, if you feel crushingly sad on a regular basis and wonder how on earth other people can cope, I would posit that this is probably depression and that you should seek help.

Okay, if I take antidepressants I might not feel as downright miserable as I do now, but I’ll be forever wandering about in an artificial chemical haze, unable to feel much of anything at all. Isn’t being sad better than that?

This was my biggest concern before I actually tried taking fluoxetine. That the medication would make my brain fuzzy and slow. That all the vivid colours of emotion would blur together into a grey sludge. That the depression would still be there – covered up, perhaps, like furniture under a sheet – unseen but always THERE, an invisible, silent, unsettling presence.

That is not remotely how it feels to be on fluoxetine. It feels, to me, as though I finally have things in perspective – not that fluoxetine has tricked me into thinking the world is great when it isn’t, but that it has corrected an error in my brain that made me see everything as awful when it wasn’t. Things are actually clearer now; if anything made the world seem fuzzy and grey and unsettling, it was the depression that gripped me before.

I can certainly still SEE the bad stuff, and even feel bad about it. But I can see the good stuff now too. The distinction between bad and good is sharper, and I seem to have lost my joy-stifling tendency to think of good stuff as bad stuff in disguise because it will some day betray me by coming to an end. I’m still capable of feeling happy and sad and angry and shocked. But my default mood has shifted. Whereas before, left to its own devices, it tended to drift back towards lonely, angry, hopeless self-hatred, it is now anchored in a much calmer, more rational place. Sometimes this takes me by surprise; I’ll catch myself feeling happy, or at least contented, and I’ll think “wait, what are you feeling like that for?”. And then I think “oh yeah, I do have quite a few reasons to be happy, don’t I?” Which is pretty much the opposite of the spiral I’ve been getting trapped in for the last few years.

But if you get rid of depression, aren’t you getting rid of a useful motivator to make your life better?

ABSOLUTELY NOT. This is a question that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of depression. Depression is the opposite of a motivator. It’s the sense that there isn’t any hope of making things better, and that you wouldn’t deserve it even if there was.

As proof that fluoxetine isn’t just a pill to make you accept whatever crappy situation you find yourself living in, I will say this: there are many aspects of my life that I’m not happy with. The main difference now is that they don’t prevent me from enjoying the aspects I am happy with. I can be upset that I don’t have a job, and still love hanging out with my friends. I can wish I had a cute human or pangolin to cuddle up to at night, and still enjoy curling up with a good book. I am able to feel good about the ways in which I am lucky, and still aspire to do more with my life. You know, like people are supposed to.

Surely there must be better ways of achieving the same thing, without using medication?

For some people I’m sure there are, and they’re certainly worth trying too. But the hardline anti-antidepressant stance that some people take strikes me as sort of a weird holdover from a (mostly) bygone era when mental illnesses weren’t considered as “real” as physical illnesses. If I had an infection I wouldn’t try to “think” myself better – that idea would have more than a whiff of new age absurdity about it. No, I’d go to the doctor for some antibiotics. Obviously this is an oversimplification, as many mental illnesses can and have been successfully treated using non-pharmaceutical techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy. But to outright reject the use of a drug that has been clinically proven to work, at least for some people, seems misguided.

Does fluoxetine have any side effects?

For me: nothing that is anywhere near as bad as the depression was. I am sleeping quite a lot. Often I’ll get tired in the middle of the day and have to take a nap, which I didn’t used to like doing. But this may just be my body catching up on all the sleep I’ve lost to depression, anxiety and panic attacks over the last few years. I’ve also had some strange and elaborate dreams, but nothing too nightmarish.

Aside from that, my stomach felt a bit odd for my first few days on fluoxetine, but after a week it was fine. Also, this may be a little TMI, but my sex drive has been reduced quite a bit. Not the sort of thing I’d normally bring up, but as I actually want this post to be informative I thought I’d better mention all the side effects rather than getting squeamish about them.

Also, I know I said I’m not a doctor, but I have been told BY a doctor that for most people there are no serious long-term risks to taking fluoxetine, so, prescriptions permitting, you can pretty much keep taking it for as long as you need to.

Hey, um, I know I’m supposed to be your pre-fluoxetine past self, but you’re being so effusive that I just have to break character and ask: are you being paid by Big Pharma to write this?

No. And I have no idea who produces fluoxetine or how ethical they are. All I’m saying is that for me, it works. (And I’m not trying to convince you to spend money on anything, because where I live this kind of healthcare is free, as it should be everywhere.)

For you, it works. Okay. But what if this is just some weird you thing?

It could well be. But the reason I wanted to write this is because I haven’t read much stuff about antidepressants that’s as unambiguously positive as my experience so far has been. Understandably, self-help books, NHS websites etc. tend to be quite cautious when talking about them, emphasising that they’re not for everyone, and stopping short of fully endorsing them. And yeah, I’m sure they’re not appropriate to every situation, they won’t work for everyone, and some people will suffer side effects. But, purely based on my own experience, and to avoid adding to the pile of frustratingly tentative prose about antidepressants, I will say this: if you think you are depressed and you just don’t know how to go about feeling better, you SHOULD at least ask your doctor about fluoxetine. It might not work for you, or it might give you bad side effects, in which case you should of course stop taking it. Even if it works, it won’t solve all your problems in one fell swoop.

But in my case it’s made a world of difference. I can’t promise it will for you too, but I promise it’s worth trying.

Footnote: just in case anyone reading this has social anxiety issues similar to mine, I feel I should also mention that it is perfectly fine to take a friend or family member to the doctor with you. Lots of people do it, and it can be very reassuring to have someone else there to back you up.

Reading: the dirty lost pilgrims of Amberghost Abbey… problem

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The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

I went into this book sceptical. While I enjoy fairytales, I feel like we’ve reached a point where the subversion of them is the norm, and the truly subversive thing to do would be to write some new ones instead of endlessly repurposing the ones we have. But The Book of Lost Things is an artifact of such power that this criticism melts before impact. It opens starkly, as the young protagonist loses his mother in some of the most painful pages I’ve read in recent memory. From there on, the story is effed up in all the ways you want a fairytale to be effed up, and possibly a couple more. The Crooked Man is a fantastically shudder-inducing villain, and he’s far from the only threat: poor David encounters unsettlingly human wolves, harpy-harpooning trolls, insanely twisted huntresses, massive burrowing beasts and more. It’s all most pleasing if you miss those incident-riddled “point A to point B” adventures in the vein of The Hobbit. At its core is a pretty simple message about the value of love, but most messages are simple when you boil them down far enough; I’ll be quite content if every book I ever write conveys the same message, even happier if one of them does so with as much craft and beauty as this gem.

150-DirtyStreetsOfHeaven The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

This and the Dresden Files have made me suspect that daft over-the-top urban fantasy noir nonsense may be my guilty pleasure genre of choice. But perhaps that’s selling them short. Dirty Streets certainly has a strong premise, its main character being a tough-talking angel whose job is to present cases, in a sort of metaphysical courtroom dimension, for why the recently deceased deserve to go to heaven rather than be condemned to an eternity in hell. Against this backdrop, things get messy for the excellently named Bobby Dollar when souls begin to go missing; the action that follows is well-paced, the mystery theologically intriguing. That said, there is a fair chunk of junk here too, in particular a love story so unbelievable I was convinced it couldn’t actually be going to happen, and then it did. I guess that’s not much of a criticism though – it’s more like looking at a greasy chip shop pizza and noting that it’s probably not good for you, before you cram it down your throat.

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

There is more to criticise in The Amber Spyglass than in previous books in the series. The fragmentation of the plot which began in The Subtle Knife escalates here, to the point that it can be hard to piece it all together, even to remember which world everyone is in and whose side they are now on. Characters who once felt real become more ideas than believable people as, in a trend I generally disapprove of, the metaphorical meanings of the story begin to take precedence over the literal events. But these flaws are a perhaps inevitable consequence of the boldness of the themes, and a lot of potential disappointment is balanced by the cosmic scale and the intellectual vigour of the ideas presented. Some people won’t like these ideas. I generally do, although I’m not too keen on the way so many characters converge on the exact same point of view towards the end, finishing each other’s heartfelt lectures on the way things ought to be. Even with all these caveats I find the overall effect quite beautiful, and it’s still refreshing to see a young adult book take such a controversial stance, attacking huge real world institutions rather than just imagined baddies.

150-EmpathyProblem The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence

One of those reading experiences where the emotional side of my brain wrestled against the intellectual side, and this time there was no clear winner; I kept finding fault with the book, but I also became invested, almost addicted judging by how I binged my way through the latter half of the audiobook in a day. The world it presents struck me early on as impossibly black and white: evil, uncaring bankers vs. the righteous protesters outside their building. Not terribly at odds with my own views, sure, but I’m at the point now where at least part of me wants books to challenge my comfortable assumptions about people. I suppose it sort of works if you view the story not as an attempt at realism but more as a modern fairytale, or an updated take on A Christmas Carol where a brain tumour plays the part of the ghosts, and cane-twirling Victorian capitalists are replaced by even slimier businessmen who’d be right at home in American Psycho. It’s a strange mix, but as a late coming of age story it has its moments, and I couldn’t help but find the lead character’s awakening sense of humanity quite moving. Not Gavin Extence’s best book, but it still shows off his talent for delving into the human mind from odd but often startlingly relatable angles.

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Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

I sort of hoped that, as his first published novel, Ghostwritten might give some clue as to how David Mitchell developed the incredible talent on display in Cloud Atlas, marking an early and educational step on his journey as a writer. But nope, the talent is already in full bloom in this funny, globe-spanning, almost Vonnegut-esque epic. Even more than his other books, it blurs the line between novel and short story collection; some of the chapters – the one set on the holy mountain jumps out – feel easily rich enough to comprise entire novels in themselves. But there are some great “aha” moments when we finally see the quiver of connective threads binding the whole together. If I have one criticism it’s that the book is so sprawling, so dense with echoes and imagery, that it’s hard for a mere mortal like me to know quite what to take away from it, other than a general sense that everything is connected. But that just makes me excited to read it again some day, and the first time round it was an extremely enjoyable ride, and exquisitely written. (Granted, that may be the fanboy in me talking; at this point I’d probably say the same about a telephone directory if David Mitchell wrote it.)

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

My first Austen – and I hope my university doesn’t take back my degree for admitting I skipped Mansfield Park when we studied it. If it makes them feel any better, I regret that now. I was wrong. Based on my fleeting exposure to TV adaptations of her books, I assumed that the people in them were so fundamentally different from me that I’d need to read up on the cultural context of the time and develop some sort of internal translation circuit to make sense of their emotions. But then I picked up Northanger Abbey, got to the early chapter where young Catherine feels awkward about not knowing anyone at a party, and went “oh, hello me”. This is why books are the best thing: you don’t get distracted by what sort of hats people are wearing, you just get to plug your brain right into theirs. And in the case of this book – much more so, I have to assume, than in the adaptations – you get access to Austen’s funny, sarcastic and (by modern standards) refreshingly self-expressive commentary on the social conventions of her time. Now I feel silly about all the years I spent feeling alienated by the society portrayed in her work; it turns out it seemed just as alien to her all along! Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

150-IAmPilgrim I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

It’s that old tale about a troubled but brilliant person being pulled back into a world they tried to leave behind. In this case he’s a superspy type, enlisted first to investigate an unusually perfect murder and then to foil a deadly terrorist plot. Like many thrillers, I suppose, I Am Pilgrim seems to have a slightly Team America view of the world, particularly when it comes to Arab nations, where the populace are portrayed as simple, unhappy and corrupt at best, terrorists and torturers at worst. Meanwhile, our hero is also not above using some morally questionable techniques when shit gets rough, but these unfailingly go off without too much unpleasantness and, in one case, a victim light-heartedly thanks him afterwards, saying that a spot of torture was probably what he needed to turn his life around. Strange how the grittiest stories can sometimes be the most naive. Setting aside these troubling elements – and I’ll give the book partial credit for acknowledging some of the reasons people may end up doing bad things – it is ambitious and decently written, its climax impressively tense, but I must admit the details are already fading from my memory.

You can find over a hundred more of my rambly book paragraphs on the Books I’ve Read page!

Ripcords (and other flawed metaphors for understanding mental health)

Oh, January. Traditionally, my most garbagey month of the year. I’m not 100% sure why that is. Maybe it’s the fading afterglow of Christmas, with all its festive distractions and myriad excuses to mess about with friends. Maybe it’s seasonal affective disorder caused by the short days. In this case, I suppose it could be because one of the worst people in the world just became the president of America, or because my best friend just left to live in said dystopian nightmare land and I probably won’t see him again until next Christmas, assuming any human is left alive by then.

But largely, I think, I’m just freaked out by that new, unfamiliar digit in the year. It reminds me that time is still moving, and I’m … well, I’m not.

I’ve felt stuck for a long time now. Stuck in the same place I’ve been for much of my life, plagued by sometimes overwhelming anxiety and gradually growing depression, unable to do many of the things adults are supposed to be able to do, and worse than that, often unable to appreciate the ways in which I am actually very lucky.

One thing I’ve been struggling with a lot lately is how to deal with depressive episodes. Not the times when I feel a bit grumpy, but the times when I feel like I’m being buried alive (though the former can often turn into the latter if I can’t find a way to hold back the avalanches in my head). In my most recent books blog, I talked about buying Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive as an emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. This is something, I realise now, that I do a lot: I store up ideas for things I could do to try to feel better, or try to change my life, and only rarely do I act on them. I suppose it’s the same impulse that leads me to buy loads of cheap Kindle books when I already have hundreds I haven’t read. My fear of running out of options sometimes stops me from using the options I have.

In late 2015 I pulled one of these ripcords and went to see my GP for advice about my problems, which led on to a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy. This seemed to be helping a little bit for a while, but not as much as I wanted, and when it ended I felt lost again. And worse, I felt as though I’d used up a ripcord, shut off a potential escape route from future attacks of despair.

I suppose that’s the problem with using metaphors to try to understand life. If you choose one that doesn’t quite fit, you can end up playing by the rules of the metaphor rather than the reality.

Today, after a bit of nudging from family and friends, I was finally convinced to go back to the doctor. A different doctor this time, who referred me for a different kind of therapy, and prescribed me an antidepressant in the meantime. I have no idea yet if either of these things will work, but I’m glad I went. It reminded me that, when it comes to mental health, there are many many different options, and I’m sure every one of them has worked for somebody. If I’m serious about wanting myself to be better – for the sake of the people around me, if not for myself – then shouldn’t I keep trying until I find one that works for me?

It’s a classic one of those things I know perfectly well intellectually but cannot seem to accept emotionally: getting help isn’t a sign of weakness, and it doesn’t have to be a last resort. In a lot of cases, you’re not pulling ripcords; you’re opening doors. If you feel sad and want to talk to a friend – rather than worrying that you’ll use up some imaginary allowance of goodwill, maybe you should just do it. If you feel like you might need professional help – rather than waiting until things get worse, maybe you should go to the doctor. If you think of anything you could try that might help you – rather than squirreling it away for some hypothetical winter of the soul when you’ll have no other hope left, maybe you should just try it. It’s not worth waiting to see how bad things get. To return to the ripcord metaphor: when you’re plummeting downwards, it’s not always obvious how long it’ll be before you hit the ground.

Maybe, instead of putting all your faith in a ripcord you’ve never tested, you should go ahead and pull a whole bunch of them so you know which ones – oh, forget this metaphor, I told you it doesn’t really fit! Maybe, instead of putting all your faith in a single solution at a time, or hoping things never get bad enough that you need a solution, you should branch out, try different approaches, and experiment until you find something, or a combination of things, that make you feel better, even a little bit better – and from that slightly better place, you can continue your search.

And this doesn’t mean “growing a pair” or “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” (that sort of tough love might appeal to some people but I’ll always see it as corrosive, macho posturing garbage) but it means being willing to try a wide range of options, accept help when it is offered, and go looking for help when it’s not immediately visible. Hopefully you won’t have to look too far. Despite recent events, I truly believe there are a lot of wonderful human beings out there in the wild. And, as much as our increasingly hateful political culture might try, historically, wonderful human beings have proven themselves rather difficult to weed out.

P.S. Don’t mistake this for advice from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. I have a long way to go before I can claim that title. I’m just stating things as I see them right now, because this is the first time in a while that I’ve felt even a little bit optimistic. Got to capture that lightning in a bottle.

P.P.S. Damn. Ripcords… bootstraps… lightning… I can’t seem to stop using metaphors today! Excuse me while I double-check the side effects of fluoxetine…

Reading: dancing, darkness, daemons & depression

Hey there! I’d like you all to meet my new symbol!

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This little guy tells you that I’ve already read a book some time ago before reading it again more recently – just so you don’t think I’ve got thirty-one years into life without having experienced the magic of His Dark Materials.

On that overly defensive note, let the book rambles commence!

150-DanceDanceDance Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I’d nearly finished this book when I discovered it’s the sequel to another book (A Wild Sheep Chase) which I haven’t read, but the unexplained elements didn’t strike me as out of place, rather feeling right at home within Murakami’s usual dream logic. Talking to a sheep man on a spooky secret floor of a weird hotel? I’d expect nothing less. As ever, I had no idea where the plot was going, or which strands would turn out to be important. At one point I thought it was turning into a murder mystery, but Murakami seems to shoot down anything resembling a recognisable formula before it gets off the ground. This freewheeling style is enjoyable, but also means I never really know what to say after finishing one of his books. At some point I should probably make an effort to read up on interpretations of his work rather than cheerfully bumbling through it like someone admiring the pretty pictures in an art gallery without stopping to look too closely or read the plaques for context. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with pretty pictures for pretty pictures’ sake.

150-TheLeftHandOfDarkness The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

As indicated by the otherworldly spires on the cover, this is a proper juicy old-school science fiction novel, of the sort you feel you should read a musty second-hand paperback of – but I bought the Kindle version because that’s the boring future we’ve ended up in. The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from the Ekumen, a loose interplanetary union, responsible for making first contact with the inhabitants of the icy planet of Gethen. The most unique feature of this strange new world is its genderless society, in which people are neither male nor female, but temporarily take on the biological characteristics of one sex or the other for mating purposes. The oddest feature about the book, meanwhile, is that this feels almost irrelevant to the actual events that transpire. The story functions more as a guided tour of Gethen than as a particularly thorough exploration of the themes it touches upon. I suspect that, at the time of writing, even touching upon these themes was pretty radical, and I have to respect Le Guin for that – as well as for her elegant writing style and, of course, the sheer breadth of her imagination.

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Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

From the very first page of Northern Lights we are wrapped in the rich, darkly intoxicating atmosphere of a world a lot like our own, but different in a few key ways. Most notably, people’s souls are embodied by daemons, animal companions which can shape-shift until their humans reach a certain age, at which point they settle into a permanent form. It’s a brilliant idea, sure to induce envy in any wannabe fantasy author (cough), but Pullman uses it in so many clever ways that you can’t stay mad at him. As plucky young heroine Lyra (along with her daemon Pantalaimon) leaves behind a cushy life in her version of Oxford and sets out to find her missing friend Roger – well, we go with her, in that magical but indefinable way that so few books achieve, and by the time we get to the north we are so embroiled in the ways of her world that what we find there strikes us as genuinely horrifying. Whatever you think of the later books in the trilogy – and they certainly get more divisive as they go – this opening volume is a spectacular masterpiece, and I don’t see how anyone with an interest in fantasy could disagree.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Whereas Northern Lights is a fairly linear story set in one world and told mostly from one point of view, The Subtle Knife pulls back to reveal much bigger and more complicated things going on, the mere nature of which would probably constitute a major spoiler. This is where the scope of Pullman’s ambition – alongside his hatred for certain real-world institutions – becomes clear. We are also introduced to the second major protagonist of the series, a troubled but good-hearted boy named Will, who is from our world but has that uncanny children’s fiction ability to very quickly accept that he’s just stepped into a realm of daemons, witches, soul-eating spectres and knives that can cut through the fabric of reality. If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that it is very much a middle chapter: up to and including the cliffhanger ending, a lot of what transpires feels like stage setting for book three. But that criticism rings a little hollow when it is almost impossible, at any point, to tear your eyes from the stage.

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Slade House by David Mitchell

I often wish that authors would invent new types of supernatural being rather than plucking them wholesale – vampires! werewolves! zombies! – from the collective culture. In his last couple of books, David Mitchell has done an exceptional job of establishing his own unique mythology. Viewed from certain angles, Slade House seems like a classic haunted house story, albeit structured in Mitchell’s signature time- and viewpoint-hopping style, but his horrors possess an underlying logic that satisfies the rational side of my brain more than the vague, indistinct metaphysics of your average ghostie. In embracing the horror genre it feels a little like this author of astonishing power has decided to begin using that power for evil. Well, if it means more creepy delights like this, that’s okay by me. (Note: if you’ve read The Bone Clocks, you might have a little bit more of a clue what’s going on here, but I think picking up Slade House first would make for an equally enjoyable, if different, reading experience.)

150-TheFirstFifteenLivesOfHarryAugust The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Lately, in the world of not overly literary literary fiction (book club fiction, if that’s not a pejorative term) there seems to be a glut of books with titles like this: “The Intriguing Noun Phrase of Name Quirkyname”. I tried not to let this put me off what sounded like a cool premise: people who live their lives over and over again, always carrying forward the memories of their previous lives. And I was pleasantly surprised by how convincing and well thought through it all is – how these people have developed systems to take care of each other, to deal with members of their own kind who cause trouble, and to carry messages back and forth through time. My one criticism is mostly a matter of personal taste: in chronicling multiple lifetimes, the book encompasses such a broad sweep of time that it often doesn’t bother to zoom in and give us a close-up view, a sense of place and character, a gut connection to what Harry is living through. This perhaps reflects how the fleeting details of individual lives might come to mean less in such a drawn-out existence, but it also makes it hard for a mere mortal like me to fully relate. Still, the tangled game of cat and mouse that brings the book to a close is both tense and ingenious.

150-ReasonsToStayAlive Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

I bought this book a while ago and was saving it as a sort of emergency ripcord in case I ever needed one. When that time came (damn you January), I read it in less than a day. In it, the author describes his experience with intense depression, how it affected his life, and how he got better, at least better enough to come to the conclusion that life is worth living. Interspersed with the memoir style chapters are assorted interludes such as lists of the lies depression tells you and, of course, things worth staying alive for, but even these are extremely personal, and Haig is careful to emphasise that his own experiences may not apply to everyone. On that note I’m not sure this book actually made me feel much better – while I found a lot of it relatable, in places it prodded (unintentionally I’m sure) at some of my feelings of inadequacy – but it gave me a few ideas for other ripcords to try, and my depression wouldn’t really be doing its job if just reading a book could fix it.

You can find over a hundred more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Reading: trains, storms, magicians & haunted hotels

150-agatheringstorm A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore

As an experiment, my book club decided to try out the website Blind Date with a Book, and we ended up with this – certainly a book a lot of us would otherwise have judged by its cover. It was described on the website as a mystery, and while there is an element of that, the mystery does not really unfold in stages or keep the reader guessing as you might hope. There is only really one twist, and it comes near the end; what leads up to it is simply an account of the life of a young woman, with a focus on romance and a brief, somewhat out of place diversion into wartime espionage – all given an air of nostalgia and not entirely justified intrigue by the framing device of Lucy Cardwell, in modern times, digging into her family’s history. I didn’t dislike this book – and towards the end there is some minor but welcome subversion of all the wholesome cosiness – but on this occasion the blind date didn’t really prove much; A Gathering Storm is more or less what I would have assumed it was if I saw it in a book shop.

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

One of those dark twisty modern psychological thriller mystery things. Yes, it has a hint of Gone Girl, but while that book was about characters so screwed up you could only shake your head and let out a low whistle, the characters in this one are generally screwed up in more relatable ways that allow you to root for them. At the centre of it all – or on the fringes, depending on your point of view – is Rachel, a woman with a troubled past, an alcohol problem and a habit of staring out the window of the train, projecting her dreams of a happier life onto a particular couple she sees every day. As the story goes on things get murkier, secrets come out, threads unravel and tangle together, “aha!” moments proliferate alongside “uh-oh!” moments, and readers are kept guessing until late in the game. Overall The Girl on the Train is a highly satisfying package, cleverly interweaving theme with plot, but it is Rachel’s first chapter, which draws us into the life of a character we know almost nothing about, that has stuck with me the most – a masterful example of a writer doling out information in small, addictive doses.

150-themagicians The Magicians by Lev Grossman

A most peculiar book. It contains a lot of what I expected it to contain, and much that I didn’t expect at all. In truth it feels rather like two or three different books smooshed together in a sort of culturally aware exploration of various facets of the fantasy genre. Most obviously it evokes Harry Potter and Narnia, with a dash of D&D and perhaps a pinch of Wonderland. The trouble, for me, is that this makes the world feel inconsistent, to some extent lacking in its own identity, and it’s never quite clear how all the pieces fit together. The characterisations are also odd; Quentin Coldwater, while I think he is intended to be moody, can be dickish in quite a bizarre and jarring way, and some of the others don’t feel fully fleshed out. But I’m sounding a little more negative than I intended, so allow me to pivot: there are some incredibly cool moments in The Magicians, some highly imaginative feats of magic, and some genuinely clever thematic material dealing with what it might mean to be able to do anything, to get what you have always dreamed of and still be unhappy. If heady concepts are what you want from a fantasy and you’re willing to go on a slightly bumpy ride to get your fix, this book may be for you.

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The Shining by Stephen King

Maybe my favourite horror book I’ve ever read. Not so much because it terrified me (though a couple of scenes gave it a bloody good go) but because it’s so crammed with cool creepy stuff that it almost feels like the ultimate haunted house story. Going in, I had only a vague knowledge of the plot: man takes job as winter caretaker at isolated hotel, man stays there alone with man’s family, man’s mind deteriorates, bad stuff happens. But there is more to it than that, apparently more than is in the film too. The history of the Overlook Hotel is deep and rich, the apparitions that dwell there enjoyably malevolent, and young Danny’s psychic abilities add an extra dimension to the characterisations. A couple of nits I couldn’t help picking: the third-person narrator can be pointlessly lascivious towards female characters at times, and there is some stuff involving a man dressed as a dog which I’m not too happy about from my modern, tediously PC standpoint, but at most those are small blemishes on a big, impressive novel, and ones I’m willing to overlook (sorry) for the love of a good ghost story.

150-misery Misery by Stephen King

The story of a famous author who is kidnapped by an obsessive fan after a car crash, taken to her remote home in the mountains and forced to write a new book to her exacting specifications. I wonder how much of it appeals to me just because it’s about the writing process in all its infuriating, wonderful, soul-crushing glory. There is certainly a lot of insight here – about writing for yourself vs. writing for others, about writing as a reason to stay alive, about the unconscious mind solving sticky plot problems, about the hidden value of uninformed criticism. But surrounding the writing is a claustrophobic psychological thriller with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle horrors to offer, as poor Paul Sheldon tries to employ the limited toolset at his disposal to find a way out, any way out. And the star, of course, is Annie Wilkes, certainly the most memorable character from any Stephen King book I’ve read, who is by turns scary, sympathetic, funny, clever, stupid, paranoid, trusting, childlike, calculating, puritanical and utterly depraved. I’m sure there are more sensitive ways to depict mental illness, but for better or worse, this book, like Gone Girl, is more than entertaining enough to get away with it.

150-americanpsycho American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read since university, American Psycho feels like an Important Work of Literature: serious and striking, with few concessions to readability, often seeming to make an active effort to push readers away. The meanness and vapidity of its characters, the interminable inventories of what people are wearing, the constant cross-purpose conversations that go nowhere — all these caused me to put the book down early on, coming back to it months later out of a sense of literary duty and a desire not to let it beat me. I knew it also contained scenes of graphic sex, murder and mutilation, and while I didn’t expect to enjoy these, I couldn’t shake the slightly psychopathic thought that they might at least break up the mundaneness. As it turned out, they didn’t make me feel much of anything either — it all just blended together into a jarring, numbing collage, and perhaps that was the point. The main character is certainly interesting (though I can’t help but feel that writing a psychopath is a licence to give any inconsistency the air of an enigma), and the overall portrayal of the culture of Wall Street is about as damning as that culture probably deserves. As a believer in artistic freedom I’m glad American Psycho exists, but for me personally, I’m not quite sure the journey was worth the headache.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Reading: symphonies & graveyards, emperors & English villages

Disclaimer: I mention Harry Potter in 3 out of 6 of these rambly book paragraphs. If you have a problem with that, you should probably leave now, because I can’t promise it won’t be 4 out of 6 next time.

150-emperoroftheeightislands Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Comparisons to Game of Thrones get throne (sorry) around a lot at the moment, mostly by people who seem to think George R. R. Martin invented fantasy. But in this case, the comparison (drawn by my very fantasy-literate friend Alanna) is apt. In Hearn’s novel, a diverse bunch of point-of-view characters with various claims to various lands and titles go on long, meandering journeys back and forth across a Japanese-inspired empire, occasionally bumping into each other when they’re not busy being abruptly killed off. Most notably, we follow boy hero Shikanoko as – before our very eyes – he is shaped into a legendary figure by forces largely beyond his control, and at points it’s hard not to wonder if he may ultimately turn out to be the bad guy. The style is simple and elegant, the characters interestingly conflicted, the way magic works imaginative and very distinct from fantasy books with a more western setting – here, magical power seems primal, bound together with death, birth and sex. Another similarity to Thrones: this volume is far from a standalone book, and relies on its yet-to-be-released sequel to resolve most of its plots.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Wonderful isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it fits this book in a very literal way. Station Eleven is full of wonder at our modern civilisation – which in the story has recently fallen to a deadly flu virus – and at the things the scattered few survivors have lived through and lost. It is a winding, non-linear tale about people trying to hold on to bits of the past, fragments of a world that is rapidly fading from living memory into the realm of myth – and at the centre of it all is the Travelling Symphony, a troupe who play music and perform Shakespeare for those other survivors who want a taste of the world that was. The sheer ambition, the interlocking mysteries and the incredible care with which every word has been chosen all remind me of a David Mitchell book, and make me happy to jot down Emily St. John Mandel’s name below his on my shortlist of authors to read everything by. (Side note: the audiobook performance by Jack Hawkins is exceptionally evocative, and will give you shivers like you’re huddled by a big fire in a log cabin out in the snowy woods, even when you’re just popping to Tesco for cat food.)

150-harrypotterandthecursedchild Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany

I have not yet seen this play in the theatre, but I think I can safely say watching it would be a much better experience than reading it. On paper (or Kindle screen) it can feel like questionable fanfiction – familiar characters in new and unlikely situations, presented in an uncomfortably bare-bones style with little of the flavour of a novel. The plot is easy to criticise as more a Greatest Hits of Harry Potter than a true eighth installment, finding convoluted ways to bring in just about every element of the wizarding world you could possibly want to see on stage. This would be thrilling if you were actually watching it, but as I read my main reaction was “oh, I guess that’ll be really cool for the people who managed to get tickets”. Having said all that, there were odd bits that made me remember why I love the series so much. The new character of Scorpius is pretty great. And Rowling isn’t afraid to take risks, portray Harry in a more negative light than ever before, and show Hogwarts from the perspective of people much more socially alienated than him. As a social alien, I appreciated this greatly.

150-thegraveyardbook The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Don’t think I’m obsessed with Harry Potter or anything, but The Graveyard Book has a lot of Potter about it: a boy grows up in unusual, magical surroundings, has a series of episodic adventures, and gradually learns more about his past and the shadowy man who murdered his parents. Of course, as it is only a single, fairly short book, it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but there is a lot crammed into these eight chapters. I enjoyed the dense, self-contained world of the graveyard, with its underground tombs, weird dream-like other planes and ghostly characters from across the sweep of history. On reflection, a few aspects of the ending strike me as cheap ways to stir up readers’ emotions while checking some generic coming-of-age boxes along the way – but they still gave me a bit of a tingle, so I guess Neil Gaiman knows what he’s doing. I only wish I could get my brain to stop trying to make literal sense of his work, because it does tend to put a bit of distance between me and his beautifully crafted worlds.

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The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

It took me a long time to get into The Casual Vacancy. It’s not that I was expecting Quidditch and Polyjuice Potion – honest! – but it seemed reasonable to expect some of the charm of Harry Potter. Instead, this book felt like a rather humdrum soap opera with a focus on unlikeable characters judging one another. To be honest I may not have kept going, except for two things: a) I had bought the audiobook and decided to let it play in the background while doing other things, and b) it was written by J. K. Rowling who is still probably, by some measures at least, my favourite author. I’m glad I made the effort. The cast may be less colourful and cartoonish than that of Harry Potter, but some – Krystal Weedon springs to mind – are no less vivid and fascinating, if you can get past all the ugly hypocrisies Rowling dwells upon so unflinchingly it feels almost unfair. And in the end, all the mundane, unpleasant, judgemental pieces come together to form something powerful, compassionate and furious. In that way, at least, this book lived up to my expectations.

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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I seem to have been reading a lot of coming-of-age stories lately, and my jumbled thoughts on the genre will hopefully take the form of a larger blog post soon. This book treads some fairly familiar ground, documenting a year in the life of a 13-year-old poet and stammerer, burdened by secrets and self-doubt, as he traverses the tense tightropes of school and family life in the English village of Black Swan Green. But the journey is made memorable by David Mitchell’s inventive way with words, his talent for suddenly revealing unexpected and beautiful truths that have been there all along, and his habit of shattering his narratives into fragments which feel almost like self-contained stories in themselves, but which together add up to something much more enigmatic and affecting. As with all his books, I’d like to go through this again with a highlighter in an attempt to trace all the secret connections, in this case to figure out what exactly is going on with that moon-grey cat…

Note: I also reread Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere recently for my book club, and enjoyed it quite a bit more the second time round. So I’ve retroactively awarded it a star, over on the Books I’ve Read page. Don’t tell me I can’t do that! I make the rules around here!

Reading: handmaids, wallflowers, pigs & civil wars

Still plodding along with this whole reading thing, even though my brain doesn’t seem to want me to at the moment. Meh, if I did everything my brain wanted me to do, we’d all be in trouble.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I read this for uni and reread it for book club. It portrays a deeply conservative future society called Gilead, where women like the narrator are forced to work as surrogate mothers in an attempt to counteract a spate of birth defects. This catastrophe seems to have flipped some awful switch in society’s attitudes towards gender: now it is commonly accepted that men can’t be trusted with the sight of female flesh, so women have to cover their bodies and faces; women can’t be trusted with independence, so they are not allowed to read or have money or walk outside alone. With the unflinching intelligence that seems to define her writing, Atwood dredges out the darkest prejudices that probably still lurk in more minds than we care to admit, and in classic dystopian style, creates a world that takes them to their logical, horrifying conclusions. Even if you don’t buy that a society like Gilead could ever really come about — well, first of all, based on historical precedents I would respectfully disagree — but also there is more than enough of our own world in here that it would be complacent not to feel uncomfortable.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

A coming-of-age tale which is hard to talk about objectively, because it’s probably either going to hit you like a ton of bricks or sail right past you without making an impact. For me, it was the former. This was unexpected. Early on in the book my cynicism kept chiming in with scathing comments – “oh, of course the narrator is a sweetly naive teenage genius, oh of course he meets a ragtag band of social outcasts who take him in” – but as I got more and more wrapped up in the story, that ugly side of me was left talking to himself in the corner of the room while the rest of me sat with his mouth hanging open, unable to stop reading. There were long passages that hurt to read because clearly they were addressed to me and no one else – though considering the number of people who love this book, I suppose that can’t be the case. How do you build something so powerful out of such simple pieces? It’s not as if Perks is all that original, or all that immediately striking in its style. What it is is an exceptionally kind, open and emotionally honest book, and a friendly reminder that if you really care about the people who care about you, you should try to care about yourself, at least a little bit.

150-HalfOfAYellowSun Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The civil war in Nigeria is a conflict I knew so little about that I had to look it up to confirm that it actually happened in real life as well as in this book – so if you’re anything like as historically ignorant as me, it’s worth reading just to learn a bit about something rather important that few educators (certainly in Britain) seem to think is worth telling people about. Half of a Yellow Sun is a big, sweeping novel, a portrait of a fiery political situation told through the eyes of three characters from three very different worlds. Their characterisations are vivid, sharp and complex, their emotions often several steps removed from the emotions you might expect them to feel in a given situation. As admirable as this complexity is, the constant subversion of obvious emotions sometimes left me, as a (how shall I put this) somewhat less complex reader, struggling to relate. Only sometimes though. This is definitely up there with a few really great books that I’m annoyed with myself for not appreciating quite as much as I wanted to – but overall I still enjoyed it for its intricacy and intelligence, its humour and sadness. And the ending is pretty beautiful.

150-AnimalFarm Animal Farm by George Orwell

Another reread. This is the story of a workers’ revolution among the animals of Manor Farm, who chase out their human masters and seize control, before slowly realising that this new configuration of power has not resulted in the golden utopia they were promised. Animal Farm certainly deserves its status as a classic: it’s extremely well crafted and makes its points clearly and elegantly. To me, though, the directness of the allegory has always been mildly off-putting, and gives this book a bit of an educational flavour, like something designed to be taught in schools. But perhaps that’s just because Orwell’s follow-up, the magnificently terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes a lot of the same ideas and spins them into a much more complex and thought-provoking tapestry.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Reading: drugs, clockwork bees, dark carnivals & mayhem

So far this year I’ve been reading at what feels like my slowest rate since I started uni way back in 2008. This makes me feel tremendously guilty for some reason; perhaps because I worry that my brain is slowly turning to mush, taking everything I learned on my English degree with it. But here’s what I’ve managed to read, anyway. Don’t judge meeee!

150-SomethingWicked Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The creepy story of a malevolent carnival that shows up on the outskirts of a little American town and begins to exert some dark influence on the inhabitants. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, to the point that I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t read this at some formative stage of his development. It also gave me unexpected flashbacks to reading Goosebumps as a child, though this is definitely more grown-up, and some of the horrors a little more abstract and existential than R. L. Stine’s tended to get. Reading it, I always felt a few steps behind the story, struggling to keep track of what was going on as Ray Bradbury danced around pulling ribbons out of everything like the conjurer he undoubtedly was. Something Wicked is stuffed with brilliant images and ideas, but ironically I may not be quite enough of a grown-up to fully appreciate it.

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Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

A remarkable comic adventure thriller vaguely-science-fiction almost-fantasy novel, whose setting feels so unique that you occasionally have to remind yourself it’s actually set in a version of our world. But it’s the parts of our world we don’t see – undercover government organisations, the (literal) criminal underworld of London, the lairs of impressively evil Bond-esque supervillains, and generally the domain of people otherwise unable or unwilling to fit into normal society, perhaps due to their ridiculous names. Central among them is Joe Spork, son of a notorious/celebrated gangster, grandson of a quiet artisan specialising in clockwork, himself uncertain of which way to go. His inevitable journey of self-discovery begins when a retired spy named Edie Banister decides to use him to set in motion a chain of events that will threaten the whole world in an entirely original and unsettling way. What follows is a rich brew of cheerfully over-the-top characters, imaginative action sequences, witty writing and fascinating, often dark thematic material. Nick Harkaway is definitely a writer to watch and be fiercely jealous of.

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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I was cautious going into this book, because although it seems to be worshipped by a certain section of the population, I got the impression this was largely to do with the theme of masculinity, a theme so profoundly meaningless to me that when people talk about it in the context of real life they may as well be talking about unicorns. Thankfully, there is a lot more going on here than a bunch of guys reconnecting with their inner man-animals through the medium of beating each other up. Each chapter is beautifully, almost musically structured, with verses and choruses, themes and variations, echoes and refrains which provide a satisfying sense of progression even when the plot is unfolding in three different places and times at once. The writing is peppered with striking, meme-ready sentences which provide a clue as to how it accumulated its massive cult following. And yes, there may be a rebellious, even anarchic streak running through Fight Club, but any reader who sees it all the way to its chilling conclusion and still thinks “yeah, we need to do exactly what those guys did” is not a person I will ever understand.

150-AScannerDarkly A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I think the best way I can describe this book is as a strangely enjoyable exploration of paranoia and uncertainty. It’s no rollercoaster; the plot – relating to the life of a man leading a double life as a drug addict and an anonymous agent investigating, well, mainly himself – sidles along at a leisurely pace, taking in the entertainingly mundane conversations of its drug-addled characters, philosophical musings on identity, and explanations of scientific curiosities relating to the structure of the human brain. Already I can barely remember any actual plot points, but that’s not really a criticism, since I remember it being pretty consistently interesting and funny. I definitely need to read more Philip K. Dick. Also – though it is entirely coincidental that I read them back to back – someone could write a good essay comparing this book to Fight Club. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Things I learned in Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to America in the company of some friends of mine to attend Filmapalooza, the annual gathering of the winners of the 48 Hour Film Project (which we won last year in Edinburgh and Glasgow). It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, not a place I knew much about, but I was excited, particularly as I’d never been to America before.

The experience was a bit overwhelming and hard to summarise, so I’ve written a bunch of fairly unconnected paragraphs in the hope that together they’ll convey the whole chaotic experience better than a linear blog post could. Here goes!

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I kinda hate airports. For a person with social anxiety, an airport is an obstacle course of awkwardness. There are even forfeits: if you fail to understand the instructions being barked at you at the security checkpoint, your punishment is to be felt up by some guy you don’t know. And if I didn’t have two well-travelled friends with me, the whole thing would have been much worse, as nothing about the process of checking in / checking bags / passport control / boarding is at all self-explanatory, and there is the constant sense that if you do something wrong you’ll find yourself in a lot more trouble than if you, say, knock a Fruit Corner off a shelf at Sainsbury’s.

The actual flying part is okay, except when it’s not, but most of the time it is. I don’t understand how anyone ever has the nerve to put their seat back though. I think there should be some sort of prize — maybe a cash reimbursement — for getting through the whole flight without putting your seat back, especially if the person in front of you has. Also, sometimes the plane is way too hot and they only bring round tiny cups of water every hour or so, probably to stop everyone needing to use the toilet. And whenever there’s any turbulence I quickly think back over the last day or so of my life and convince myself that this would be a dramatically appropriate point for the plane to crash and kill me. And one time I noticed this bit of the wing that was flapping up and down as if it was about to come loose. Actually, maybe flying isn’t okay.

Atlanta is pretty. Just the right amount of sleek modern city centre surrounded by picturesque suburbs sprawling off into the forest. It feels nice and, considering the high crime rate, unexpectedly not scary. I didn’t think much about the fact that anyone passing me on the street could be carrying a gun, or that there’s no universal healthcare, or that they still execute people, or that they’re considering electing a billionaire cartoon villain who frequently makes misogynistic comments and has suggested banning an entire religion from entering the country on the basis that he thinks they’re up to something. I suppose the niceness is what allows the people living there to forget these things most of the time too.

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American people are also nice. Nice enough that I am now baffled as to where the stereotype of British politeness came from. The people I encountered in America were infinitely more polite than the grumps you meet in Britain – with the notable exception of the border control guy to whom I had to justify my existence at Atlanta airport, and who managed to make me feel like I shouldn’t be there as soon as I arrived. But border control guys aren’t technically people, so I won’t count him.

America may be nice, but here’s one thing it is not: it is NOT an enchanted land that causes me to shed all my social inhibitions the minute I set foot on its soil. As is my habit, I’d sort of fooled myself into thinking it might be, but the disappointing truth is that I am the same person even when I’m on a different continent. This meant a certain amount of standing around awkwardly at the social events I attended, particularly during the ice-breaker. And after that, a certain amount of staring out the window of a revolving restaurant rather than talking to the people I was with, and then a certain amount of staying in my room while my friends were off partying, talking to myself and trying to come to terms with the fact that this trip might not be quite the personality transplant I’d been hoping for. (That all sounds bad, but if you know me it’s actually pretty normal.)

Staying in a reasonably fancy hotel is a cool experience. If you ever get the chance to stand in front of a floor-to-ceiling window high above a nocturnal cityscape of twinkling lights, holding a drink and wearing an actual shirt with buttons and everything, you may experience the strong sense that you have finally “made it”. However, this sensation is fleeting and untrustworthy, and when you retire to the nice room you are only staying in thanks to a hefty discount, you may find yourself terrified to touch anything in case it costs you hundreds of dollars you don’t have. Seriously, they had a bottle of water with a cardboard thing around it saying “enjoy”, and it was only if you looked closely you could see it also said “$5”. After that I started looking for prices on everything. It took us several days of tentative experimentation before we discovered the Wi-Fi was actually free after all. Awkward unemployed Scots are not made for such surroundings.

Despite all that, the film festival was fun. The screenings — of ours and other people’s films — were very enjoyable, and the people I did talk to were nice and often quite complimentary about our films, which was double nice. If you’re lucky, I might do another blog post soon about my favourites of the other teams’ films, because there were too many good ones to cram in here.

cocacola1Coca-Cola World is a little pocket of brightly-coloured dystopia where any staff member who doesn’t show appropriate enthusiasm for the ubiquitous fizzy concoction is presumably taken to a back room and dissolved in a vat of it like an unfortunate tooth in a school science project. But it’s quite fun, and all the propaganda did help me remember how much I love Coke.

Zaxby’s is not a great restaurant for vegetarians. And by not great, I mean not only does it offer no substantial vegetarian options, but it also has slogans on the walls making fun of us for being sissies. The rebellious side of me felt that they’d initiated hostilities towards us, and that it would be quite within the rules for me to perform some minor act of vandalism in their restaurant that they wouldn’t discover until after I’d left. But then I found their drinks machine had raspberry Coke, so I decided they were okay. Coke is great.

Zaxby’s aside, finding vegetarian food in America wasn’t as hard as I expected – most burger places have a veggie option, and even the fried chicken place we ended up at on the last day offered the welcome option of ordering four sides in place of a main course. I won’t claim to have gained any real insight into American cuisine, since my diet both there and here consists almost entirely of bread, cheese, meat substitutes and sugar in various configurations, but I did discover that working out how much to tip is not quite the ordeal I’d been dreading. Oh, and non-alcoholic drinks aren’t an issue either, because literally everywhere has Coke. And why not? Everyone loves Coke.

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The museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts will make you happy if you like the Muppets. If you don’t like the Muppets you don’t deserve to be happy, so you should go there either way.

Six Flags Over Georgia, which we had planned as a treat for our last full day in America, turned out to still be closed for the winter. This was a bit of a downer, but on the plus side, we went to the Amazing Escape Room instead! I knew I’d like escape rooms, as they appeal to my unfulfilled childhood ambition to be a contestant on The Crystal Maze or Knightmare. And now I’ve done one (and we did escape, with over ten minutes to go, which is basically like getting over 100 gold credits after deductions in the Crystal Dome – shut up, it is!) I kinda want to do all of them. In the world. While swigging from a hip flask of Coke. I heard somewhere that Coke increases your brain power. Now where did I hear that?