Let’s Talk Mental Health and Books

I wasn’t comfortable talking about mental health for a long while. More specifically, I wasn’t comfortable with speaking about my mental health. As an adult however I felt like I had to speak about it. Many twists, tumbles and turns later, I decided I would like to remain quiet about it. Those conversations were not worth the exhaustion.

Six years ago, when I started to work as a writer, I was privy to some conversations about mental health. These conversations took place among people who had the power to inform others and I found out to my greatest horror that they had absolutely no sensitivity to mental health issues at all. Certain writers who wrote extensively on the subject, wrote so horribly–succumbed to the sensationalist values and narratives we were forced to abide by when it came to chasing a story. I tried and failed in changing attitudes. That’s a story for a different day.

This is when my adult brain realised that as much as film and art depicted mental health, there were also books that dealt with mental health issues. The first book I read with this new found information was The Perks of being a Wallflower way back in 2012, followed by the Bell Jar and several others. These books were an intriguing space to understand different issues and even more different perspectives.

This post however is about my love for the bookstagram community, a wonderful, inclusive and open space to discuss, embrace and talk about mental health among many other issues. A space which has empowered me to voice my opinions, when I feel it’s necessary, an option I didn’t quite consider before. In fact, so many bookstagrammers during the week of the Kavanaugh hearing shared stories from all corners of the world, which was both heartwarming and painful to see unravel.

It is entirely by chance I discovered that this lovely community was much more than pretty photographs of books, flowers, coffee and cats. If it wasn’t for the amazing bookstagrammers talking about representation, I wouldn’t have found a terrific writer named Helen Hoang, who wrote about her incredible journey, which has undoubtedly set me on my own search of meaning. My thoughts on Hoang’s debut will be for another post, but while you’re here, check out my five must-reads picks on the subject:

 1. Perks of Being a Wallflower 

Perks of Being a Wallflower

Charlie the ‘wallflower’ is in limbo. He is faced with charting a course through adolescence and adulthood. Thrust into a world of new friends, first dates, sex and drugs complemented by family drama, this novel also deals with loss, love and life on the fringes. Caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it, Charlie must learn to navigate those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.

2. Girl, Interrupted

Girl Interrupted

After a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen is put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spends most of the next two years in the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele—Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles—as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

3. The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

It’s no secret that Sylvia Path was a troubled woman with exceptional skill of word-stringing. Her book among many based on her  own struggles is about a woman falling into the grip of insanity.

Esther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under—maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Plath draws Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real.

4.  Alice and the Fly

Alice and the Fly

A haunting revelation of phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. This novel is about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it’s about love. Finding love – in any of its forms – and nurturing it. A debut novel about the horrors of schizophrenia, bullying and loneliness, a strangely addictive read.

5. The Kiss Quotient

Kiss Quotient

Love, relationships and sex are all part of a normal life. It’s never easy but it’s not supposed to be excruciatingly painful either. An endearing look at a woman dealing with everyday problems, doubled by difficulty. For Stella, the only thing that unites the universe is math. With a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old, she decides to seek professional help. And so the adventure begins.

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Book Review: The Help

I’m usually not the one to read a book immediately after it’s launched. I’m fully aware that by reading it later, I’m often pushing my self far away from the small crowd of enthusiastic readers in this world. But in my defense, sometimes opinions can be a little noisy and over the top. They have sometimes distracted me from my own views.  Not reading with the crowd though, is for another time and another day.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett makes it to the rare list of books I’ve read after watching the movie adaptation. But I had nearly forgotten the plot, so fortunately I was in suspense throughout the book. I don’t honestly believe that I have something to add to what’s already been said about this gem of a novel. I will however put out a few thoughts I had about this book. Spoilers minimal.

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Incredible Narratives

It was very clear from page one of this book that it had several polarising views to share. I usually find myself picking out a favourite character and a side as I progress. However with The Help, every point of view has been so very well narrated that you almost begin to understand the reasoning behind the ridiculous race and class divide. Moreover, I felt that Kathryn Stockett had addressed a more universal problem, even though her chosen landscape was Jackson, Mississippi.

Uplifting and Inspiring

Skeeter Phelan is on a mission to educate, Aibileen on one to salvage herself and others. Minny on the other hand yearns to express herself, even at the expense of her own means of survival. Three very different women, but all with courage and determination whose personalities ultimately transcend the pages to inspire the reader. Word to the wise: if you thought the film was enough, just read the book, you won’t regret it.

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“They are scared, looking at the back door every ten minutes, afraid they’ll get caught talking to me…”

Still Disturbingly Relevant

Something I kept going back to is the fact, how little has changed. Even though I personally can’t relate to the exactly dynamic in the book, something that bothered me often was about how little employee – employer relationships have changed over the decades. Living in a country with deep rooted aristocratic and racial divides, I had vague flashbacks from the past about maids employed at homes I knew as a child.  Have you ever thought about what we can do to change this?

Going back to the issue in the book, I was reminded of a particular comment by Aibileen:  “Miss Skeeter asking don’t I wanna change things, like changing Jackson , Mississippi gone be like changing a lightbulb.” This is my attitude about changing most things about my country as well.  The irony is, it is actually as simple as changing a lightbulb, if everyone did decide to treat everyone else with respect. I guess I can read on, but as Skeeter says, let some good come out of this…

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“You is kind, you is smart. You is important”

 

Mae Mobley

My heart ached for little miss Mae Mobley and I think it’s amazing that Stockett brought this side of the story, we rarely get to see in such detail. While children are left to their own devices, the maids tend to the children of their employers. What is inevitable, is something that these women have made their peace with, I learned. Heartbreaking to say the least.

Brave and Necessary

Stockett received both brickbats and bouquets for her work. In a postscript she writes about her fear of crossing a line; the line of a white person writing in the voice of a black woman. Sometimes lines have to be crossed and I admire her deeply for this. Not only did her book reach millions worldwide, but she also made sure that her story with all her concerns were heard by a lot of people who cared. In Stockett’s own words, someone had to do it.

You may not have have shared my enthusiasm about this book though. Leave a comment and tell me what you think. Would love to hear what you’ve got to say!

A fragmented journey through a tumultuous relationship

Globally, young creative minds are rekindling the art of poetry with a fresh take on the fragmented free verse. While self published poets are making brave strides across various online platforms, a young Sri Lankan poet joins the ranks of these new age bards attempting to reshape perceptions of poetry.

Filling the spaces of time with creativity as a young child, Megan Dhakshini’s world was always full of writing, she reveals. “I was the editor of the class magazine and took part in every writing competition I could” she said. However as an adult, Megan took on the path of advertising and primarily worked as an art director, moving onto writing TV and print campaigns.

Megan’s debut collection of poetry and prose titled Poison Apple was launched by the British Council in August. She defines this collection as a poetic journey of forbidden or unrequited love. “We meet the characters in the beginning of the book, learn how they view love and lust as a male and female, and watch how they both deal with the eventual parting from different points of view. It is a wildly passionate relationship that is portrayed, so even the smallest of emotions is magnified manifold to make for better poetry!” she explains.

Megan Dhakshini

Asked why she chose this particular style of poetry and prose, Megan admits that the style is simple but wouldn’t call it simplistic. She has chosen a much debated and unapologetic style for her literary pursuits. Brevity is key. “The themes are dark and visually vivid. I’ve always found it hard to relate to heavy language, so I preferred to use an approachable, short style when writing. It also makes it much easier for my preferred publishing medium which is instagram.”

Megan believes that the reader is free to interpret her work as it may have different connotations to different readers. She describes it as a story of two broken people –broken in their own ways– who are drawn to each other because of, or despite their circumstances. Even though they know that their courtship is just that – a courtship. We see them wanting and hating each other, heightened in their feelings either way: Almost a doomed relationship from the onset and therefore tumultuous.
Fitting her description, Poison Apple is presented in four parts, which accompany the reader through the ‘befores’, ‘durings’ and ‘afters’ of a passionate relationship, likened to the bite of a forbidden fruit.

“Memories of her were places

Sprawling vineyards and barren plains

On a shrinking planet

Within my veins”

Her style is nuanced, simple, explorative yet powerful as she converses with the reader. She is not an avid reader of poetry save Rumi and Cohen. Yet some of her biggest sources of inspiration are J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami. Perhaps this reflects in her fresh and honest prose. “I can never read heavy stuff, and therefore don’t write them either. Inspiration for this book in particular has come from a few “adult” writers like Anais Nin & Leonard Cohen,” she says.

Asked of any message that she wished to communicate through her work, Megan simply says: you’re never the only one. “A recurring comment I received from those who have read the book, is that though they may have not related to the theme as a whole, there were at least three or four instances in which they felt like I’ve read their mind. It’s common for people to feel like they are the only ones going through something, until you find a whole universe of others who feel exactly as you do.”

The young poet has no immediate projects in the pipeline and is uncertain of what the future holds. True to her style, she may take us all by surprise with her next venture. The book is currently available at Barefoot and on line at thelibrary.lk.

Poison Apple Book Cover

A glimpse into an eerie mind

Book review of Alice and the Fly

As soon as I read the synopsis on this beautiful cover I knew I would immediately crack it open when I went home from the book sale.

From the moment I started reading Alice and the Fly, I just could not keep it down. A few chapters down I figured out who Alice was, but who was the Fly? What’s with ‘them’? And most importantly why is Greg so scared of them?

Alice and the Fly

If my introduction is confusing, it’s exactly what I felt when I started to read Alice and the Fly. Books about mental health have found its way across popular fiction and have gained increasing popularity in the recent literary past. The science behind this being unique and never before experienced perspectives offered from an array of diverse characters. This is exactly what Greg offers as he writes about the world around him, which seems to be heavily centred on Alice, a girl from the ‘Pitt’ — the dodge end of the town . Obsessed with movies too ripe for his age and suffering with a phobia for spiders, Greg is shy, introverted and his lisp only makes things worse. School is difficult but Ms. Hayes, his English teacher wants to help. She gives Greg a journal and he reluctantly documents the world as he sees it.

Quiet, to the point and isolated, Greg narrates his seemingly innocent world. At the beginning his entries are mostly about his fascination of Alice, accounts of bullying at school and how against all odds, his parents tire themselves to avoid reality and keep up with the upper middle class neighbourhood.  Greg makes it a point to routinely check for any of them that might try to creep into his room and seal all possible entry points with tape.

The first accounts appear to be of a dysfunctional family; the father, a successful plastic surgeon known as the ‘Breast Man’ and a mother  with an unhealthy obsession over decorating and keeping up the family image. Greg and his sister Sarah are detached and isolated in their own interests. Seemingly innocent, it reflects the depressing meaninglessness of upper class society lives.

 The interjections offered by the transcripts of interviews between a detective and those around Greg, are the real thrills of this story. James Rice has chosen a brilliant device to offer intriguing nuggets of reality to the readers which are also sometimes a chilling realisation of Greg’s mental health issues.

Mid novel, I came across a sentence which never seemed to end. Run-on single sentences, which reached across several pages, I later learned, were written, every time Greg was having an episode. I couldn’t help but admire the devices and techniques used by Rice to explore vivid and gripping scenarios used to juxtapose schizophrenia with reality.

The book is not only poignant but also a very strange reflection of society as we know today. There is no argument that Alice and the Fly is eerie and deeply disturbing, but strangely enriching at the same time. I’m not particularly fond of this genre, but a must read for readers who love psychological thrillers.

 

Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Published by Quercus

Hardcover: US $ 14.60

Coffee in Kabul

At last year’s Big Bad Wolf sale, I spotted The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul while making my way to the cashier. It was a spontaneous choice, I didn’t even read the synopsis. I judged the book by the cover.

I knew that the idea behind the book would surely be a beautiful expression of an array of emotions. I was happy to discover that this was one of the most significant and remarkable features about this book.

Rodriguez paints Kabul in the midst of terror like I’ve never imagined before.

After years of covering foreign news featuring bomb blasts in Afghan markets, many books and movies toeing the same line, I could not imagine a Kabul sans terror, until I came across this novel. Set in the midst of political instability and a looming threat of the return of Taliban, the story is narrated through several characters who frequent a little coffee shop in Kabul. Even though the first chapter introduces us to Sunny, the American cafe owner, who found love in Kabul, as the protagonist, the following chapters reveal depth and importance of several other characters.

Little Coffee Shop of Kabul

These characters have their own sub plots weaved seamlessly within the story. Their  inner angels and demons juxtaposed as the plot builds, the novel offers a rarely explored view of Afghanistan’s people, spirit and culture, overshadowed by the clamour of conflict. The beauty of this once thriving nation lives within the native characters of Yazmina and Halajan, each with secrets of their own. Ahmet, Halajan’s son is representative of the modern Afghanistan we are accustomed to and the simple Bashir Hadi, the Hazara barista representing a persecuted community in his country. Then there is Sunny, Jack and Tommy who have found a home in a turbulent foreign land. Candace, a typical wealthy American and Isabel, the young and British journalists are daring feminists who set out to change the Kabul they see, each in their own manner and method.

Even though the novel was thoroughly enjoyable, there were often times when I felt as if it was a poorly pieced effort to paint Afghan realities. The novel could have brought more depth and meaning to the events and characters. There were times that Rodriguez’s foreignness seeped into the descriptions of the natives and their beliefs. Nevertheless this is pardonable as it is a genuine attempt to paint a colourful past, present and future of a country the writer clearly adores. Her efforts to narrate the brutalities of war, the turbulence of an country in transience, while delivering vivid personal portraits of each character is laudable. Many who seek accurate, detailed depictions of these characters and accounts would only be served with a lukewarm adventure. If happy hours, wine in teacups, friendships and detailed descriptions of the inhabitants of a faraway cafe sounds like your read, this one is for you.

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul (originally published as A Cup of Friendship) by Deborah Rodriguez

Published by Penguin Random House

Paperback: US $ 12

320 pages

Why Bookstagram?

A few months back life was particularly strange. I had a new lease of life for which I was least prepared. I had to share things and do things I was not used to. Happy and invigorated as I was, it felt so strange that I felt as if I was living someone else’s life. But the scariest of all was when I felt things I thought I needed to talk to someone about, I found that however many friends I had, not everyone could relate to me or give me sound advice. And then I found the awesome little community of bookstagrammers.

I do it for myself

I know it sounds pretentious and unbelievable, but it really is true. The reasons I started bookstagramming were very personal and came from a private little space in my head. Some of those who knew me from childhood would know that creating and crafting were things that came naturally to me. I think it’s because of the artsy genes I got from my folks but whatever it is, I was that kid; crafty, quiet but creative and silent.

Life however was a little different for me. Writing and creating were my outlets. But as I overcame one obstacle after the other, I simply lost the urge to do any of these things and began to write intensively. With bookstagram I was somehow reminded of this person I used to be. So no, I’m not bored, I’m not unhappy. I simply do it for myself, because it makes me happy.

If you love it, you nail it

For people who enjoy art and design, taking photos of flatlays are not an exertion. Several people used to ask me if I have prop boxes, if I buy all my books and If I use equipment. The thing is, I don’t do any of these. Some books are borrowed. There’s no order or technique to reading or taking pics of them. I’m not even a novice in photography, I don’t  know the basics in the least.

I only have a picture of what I want it to look like in my head and a phone at the ready. It’s just like how some of you would do math in your head and I still struggle even with all ten fat fingers at my disposal. Some just like figures and numbers while I just like words and pictures.

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Why books?

I was never a person who liked school. But if there was any motivation for me to go to school, it was my love for the school library. The library was my refuge, the books and the librarians were my friends. Every day after school, accompanied by two other seniors, I would help the librarians clean, mop, sort and organize the library, for the reward of being able to take one book home every day.

This was kept a secret for a very long time from my friends in school. I was anyway the loner; I couldn’t risk being a weirdo. When I told my friends, they asked me to reduce my library hours and spend more time studying. I love them but I’m glad I never took their advice. I finished reading the entire English fiction section in a few years and eventually had nothing more to read, which is when I started on Sinhala books.  When I was not sure of what to read anymore, I started to read Shakespeare and random encyclopedias. I loved every minute spent at that library!

Books were always special for me. It was my means to cope with anxiety and my escape from reality. Fortunately it was encouraged by an understanding family. I learned that whatever happens in life, a book never abandons you.

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Bookstagram is a wonderful place to connect with readers. Pic via: unsplash-logoAlan Lin

 

The Bookstagram community

My love for books and art run deeper than it shows on a photograph on instagram. But these photos give me an opportunity to connect with people just like me; something I had never even imagined was possible. Over the past few months I have connected with a lot of people from all over the world and shared my enthusiasm for reading. I have shared stories, listened to stories of joy, pain and strength. Bookstagram opened up a whole new world for me and gave me the satisfaction of connecting with inspiring people.

Many encouraged me saying that my posts were positive and nice to look at at. Others poked fun at me asking if I was trying to keep up with a fad. Since I care a lot about what people have to say, I don’t take things said to me lightly, because I don’t think words are uttered meaninglessly. This sometimes becomes my greatest weakness. So the next time you take a jibe at me, asking about how much time I take to arrange my flatlay, just know that I chose to do something I love, so it’s only a matter of seconds. Maybe you should invest in something meaningful to you and then you will understand.

Unforgiving and unsettling

Book Review: The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam

As soon as I picked this one up I knew my journey was destined to end in a strange kind of misery.

The Story of a Brief Marriage is a novel by Anuk Arudprgasam, a young Sri Lankan writer completing his PhD at Colombia University.  Arudpragasam is gifted with an ability to weave chaos with beauty in his writing. The first few paragraphs of his debut novel is a testament to this ability. The scenes are painted in such graphic, painful and unforgiving detail that even being a Sri Lankan accustomed to the brutalities of war described in these pages, it was difficult to read through each passage. And yet it keeps you immersed in a sense of looming finality that grips the story from beginning to the end.

The protagonist, Dinesh, floats through his life in the war torn North of Sri Lanka between ruminations of life and death. He often finds himself deliberating his own intrinsic human form. Descriptions of skin, blood, hair and gore are only a few of the intimate details depicted. The intensity of these moments are overwhelmingly intimate and yet engaging, as if to explain the introspections Dinesh is forced to engage with as result of deprivations of life and liberty.

Dinesh soon finds himself connected to Ganga in the most unusual of marriages. But his own private world does not cease to exist with the admission of another character to his private space. His thoughts are as free and immersive as before, while in the form of Ganga we are able to see what is perhaps a ‘real’ analysis of their surrounding and situation. Their silence somehow seems to connect them while everything else is set to fail any remote possibility of a building a life or a sense of normalcy between them.

The story of a brief marriage is simply a strange and painful novel with focus on our own human form weaved in writing which torments the reader. Arudpragasam reminds us that in even in the throes of war, amidst carnage and suffering, lies a peculiar kind of beauty and grandeur of the world, we rarely witness.

The Story Of A Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam is published by Harper Collins.

LKR. 1,495.00

208 pages