‘Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things’ by Jenny Lawson

“When we share our struggles we let others know it’s okay to share theirs. And suddenly we realize that the things we were ashamed of are the same things everyone deals with at one time or another. We are so much less alone than we think.”

Jenny Lawson, author of a famous blog called, The Bloggess, writes with flagrant humour about mental illness. She herself suffers from a few things: rheumatoid arthritis, depression, anxiety, phobias, insomnia, panic attacks, self-injury, avoidant personality disorder, autoimmune disease, and mild OCD. Yikes! Her work is undoubtedly fearless and honest, whether you find it laugh-out-loud funny or annoyingly irreverent. When she portrays herself as weird and unbalanced, she gives anyone else permission to be weird and unbalanced too (and certainly not as bad as she is), thereby busting the stigma of mental illness.

As you skip through the lightheartedness of this memoir, you do come up against the terror and tragedy that mental illness can bring, and her voice is clear and helpful. Lawson says, “I’ve been there. I’m broken too. I hear you. You are enough. Live your life as best you can, while striving to be furiously happy. Do what you can but don’t settle for less.” When she goes on speaking tours, Lawson’s audiences burst the venues–clearly she is hitting a nerve.

Lawson’s reference to Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory* towards the end of the book, was particularly helpful–we all have a limited number of spoons that we start each day with. Some of us have more than others. Just being aware can make a big difference.

*The spoon theory is a disability metaphor and neologism used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. … A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.

 

‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor)

Driving back from an early morning surfing trip with two friends, Simon Limbres is involved in a fatal car accident on a deserted country road. In the next 24 hours, his heart will be transferred to a woman close to death. It’s a tragic tale told in ruminative prose. Every possible angle of the medical process of organ transplantation is explored in great depth, like a thorough documentary, and yet the wordy reflection also gives the book a contemplative feel.

The Heart is translated from the French. I’m not sure if the style of this book is typical in that language–I found it quite unique in English and my sense is that the translator did a very good job. The sentences are long (300 + words) with run-on phrasing. I wouldn’t recommend this emotional, stylistic book to everyone, but I found it quite beautiful. The pace is slow, read it when you have time to savour it; this is not a page turner in the traditional sense, although I was completely absorbed by it. The subject matter is heavy, so if you have lost a child yourself, this may be a difficult read. There is hope in the transplant but of course such a medical procedure always has a tragic side to it. I would have liked to experience more redemption in this novel, it felt a bit empty and left some loose ends, but it was a worthwhile reading experience all the same.

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

Balram Halwai is a complicated man. Servant. Philosopher. Entrepreneur. Murderer. Over the course of seven nights, by the scattered light of a preposterous chandelier, Balram tells us the terrible and transfixing story of how he came to be a success in life—having nothing but his own wits to help him along.

This was a debut novel by this author, which immediately won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It provides a darkly humorous perspective of India’s class struggle in a globalized world, examining issues of religion, caste, loyalty, family, corruption and poverty in India. It begs to be compared to another book about India which I read years ago called A Fine Balance by Canadian author Rohinton Mistry. Both books achieve the same insight but in very different ways.

This novel gets at some hard truths without judgement or sentimentality which I appreciated and I found it to be a hugely compelling and enjoyable story. It is upbeat, pithy, sharp and fast-paced. In contrast, Mistry’s book, though beautifully written, was quite heavy and depressing. Actually this one is just as depressing in what it reveals about India, but because I found it funny, it made it so very readable. Just like The Simpsons, whether you like it or hate it (and most people seem to be in one camp or the other), does get at uncomfortable truths using humour. Whether you enjoy that humour is, of course, a personal matter.  Here is an interesting article from The Guardian about this controversial novel and an interview with the author:

‘The Lost Garden’ by Helen Humphreys

Book clubs always get us reading books we wouldn’t normally pick up. That’s what happened with this short lyrical novel set in WW 2. It beautifully describes the horrors of war from the relative comfort and serenity of an idyllic English country farm, sort of like refracted light.

In the spring of 1941 Gwen Davis leaves the chaos of wartime London to go to Devon. There her new job is to tend a neglected garden at a country house and to take charge of some Land Girls. Their job is to grow potatoes for the war effort. There’s also a house full of handsome soldiers in the house up the lane and a white wisp of a ghost flitting about. Gwen Davis at age 35, is completely unprepared for this assignment because as a horticulturalist, she relates better to  parsnips than people. “They are truly more reliable. The stupidity of vegetables is preferable to the unpredictability of people.” She discovers a lost garden, but also many things inside of herself that she never knew were there, like the capacity to love.

This is a beautifully written little gem by this Canadian author and poet, deceptively simple, subtly comic, yet with layers of depth.

‘The House We Grew Up In’ by Lisa Jewell

Ever seen a reality documentary (shock-umentary) about hoarding? The objective in producing such a ‘slice of life’ seems to be more about sensational shaming and humiliation, than about gaining empathy or information about fellow human experience. Hoarding is generally regarded as a serious mental illness (in the OCD family) and has mental, psychological, social, and physical consequences for many. The disorder deserves a more sympathetic treatment than the media often gives it.

This novel by Lisa Jewell is an attempt at that, trying to get at the core reasons for this disturbing dangerous behaviour and how it can affect families. Lorelei, the main character, is a vibrant mother who loves to gather her chicks for Easter and displays her children’s artwork on the walls of their cozy kitchen. While Lorelei knows how to love people, she doesn’t know how to care for them. The idyllic scene eventually gives way to tragedy and dysfunction. It reminded me of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a true story of a severely dysfunctional family.

What makes a person become a hoarder? How do families deal with such a problem? What might cause them to dismiss or defend something that clearly is out of control? The author definitely creates a compelling family drama, interesting in its own right, while at the same time attempts to give insight into how an average family affected by hoarding might cope (or not cope) with it.

Lisa Jewell has recently come on my author radar and I will look forward to reading more of her books. This one was written 10 years ago, while a more recent one that I read not long ago, called I Found You, was more suspenseful– in the category of what we now call the domestic thriller.

‘Young Jane Young’ by Gabrielle Zevin

This is the latest novel by Gabrielle Zevin who also wrote The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Do not be fooled by the seemingly light tone in Zevin’s books; they are full of humour and easy to read but have depth. This one digs down into politics, truth telling, and female empowerment. It felt very current. At first glance it seems to be just a tabloid Monica Lewinsky story, but then it morphs into something a lot more. Yes, the affair was consensual, but there was such an imbalance of power in the relationship that it took all hope of recovery for the woman away–name recognition alone would hound her for the rest of her days…

I really enjoyed this book. I loved the relationship between the mothers and daughters and was cheering for the main character who is quirky and strong. Against the odds, she seeks to find a meaningful life after mistakes have been made.

One image from the novel stuck with me and caused me to reflect as I drove along a windswept beach in New Zealand. Trees were bent away from the sea, their very shape altered by the relentless buffeting winds, forming them into unique reinvented examples of strength and resilience. Here is the quote: “When you think about it, isn’t a person just a structure built in reaction to the landscape and the weather?” Yes. Beautiful.

‘The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World’ by Christina Crook


“My focus is less on setting limits than it is on creating the positive conditions in which technology becomes less compelling and different kinds of engagements thrive and flourish.”
Albert Borgmann

So we all know about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) but what about JOMO? Is it possible in today’s digital world to reach a point where we find enough balance and perspective to actually find joy in being less than 3 meters from our smartphones? especially for young people who have never known a world without one? How do we maintain a health relationship with technology for ourselves and our children? How do we teach our kids that technology is a privilege, not a right?

This is a thoughtful book that draws on collective wisdom about human development and interaction and uses that as the starting point. Even though communication has improved with technology, we are all too aware of how all-consuming our devices can be and how advertisers and software developers exploit us and want us to become hooked. It’s not that screens are inherently bad–they are an amazing tool.  It’s just that we may have lost our perspective in keeping them in their place. We need to control them, not be controlled by them.

The focus needs to be on humanity. If technology enhances our human connection, that is good. But if it replaces or hampers it, or alienates us from others, then we need to think again and perhaps take a step back. Crook actually starkly points out on a timeline how technological advances and cases of anxiety and depression have marched ahead together hand in hand over the years. Ironically instead of technology saving us time for other things, we seem lost in a maze of ‘never enough time’ and being anxious about it to boot!

The big push of our age is to consume. More information, more products, more communication. How then do we push back? To slow down, be present, and draw closer. The author does a great job of stressing the importance of face-to-face communication, physical activity, and hands-on creativity.  I was happy to find no preaching in this book, just a reasoned discussion of the issues and suggestions for a healthy balanced perspective. Finding balance is important in so many areas of our lives, this is an excellent contribution to that goal!